Mami Wata (meaning “mama water” in West African pidgin English) is a guardian water spirit, venerated throughout Africa. Legend has it that those she takes as her lovers return to land more beautiful and successful than before—a fitting lore for the surf apparel brand that is not only named after the spirit, but whose garments, embodying African traditions and cultures, crowned the surf label as the first to be proudly from the continent. Mami Wata—which launches in the US on 15 October—offers up culturally and aesthetically rich surfwear, and (like the spirit) entices others to come a little closer, providing style and a bit of history in return.
The deity carries significance to the clothing brand’s co-founder, Selema Masekela, too. Masekela (an Emmy-nominated producer, commentator, surfer and son of the late legendary jazz musician, Hugh Masekela) joined the team in 2018, a year after being introduced to the brand. He tells us, “I thought it was an incredible name right off the bat, because my father had a song called ‘Mami Wata.'” He then watched a short produced by the brand and, as he continues, “I was just floored. It was the first thing that I’d ever seen that was presented from the perspective of an Indigenous African surfer and no hoopla was being made about it; it was just the thing. That had been something I’d been dreaming of my whole life.”
African representation in surf culture and the surfing industry is incredibly rare, despite the earliest recordings of the sport hailing from the 1640s in what is now Ghana. Representation from surf labels attempts to capture this “idyllic goal of wanting to emulate Southern California or Southern Australia or maybe a sprinkle of Hawaii,” Masekela explains. A surfer for over 30 years, Masekela knows how exclusionary the sport is, noting that often in his experience “there is a community that’s sort of waiting to do everything it can to dissuade you from joining.”
Mami Wata seeks to change that. Through their clothing line that interweaves African folklore, exclusively produced in Africa and sourced with materials from the continent, the company bolsters African economies, revolutionizes surf apparel and empowers new surfers, partnering with South African non-profit surf therapy organization, Waves For Change. To glean Mami Wata’s pioneering ethos, one need only look at their immediately striking prints and graphics.
“Everything is distinctly African, from the various slogans to the cuts of the shirts to the vibrancy of colors—that’s just what you see in and among the continent,” Masekela says. There’s an energy and vivacity to the designs that are representative of the many countries within the continent. “You go there and you are just endlessly hit over the head with dozens of different types of patterns that are reflective of the diversity of African culture,” he explains. “I mean, just in South Africa alone you have 13 different languages.” This heteroglossia becomes a creative and dynamic source for the brand’s aesthetic, where a slogan or tradition from a small Indigenous community becomes translated into a vibrant pattern.
When it comes to the brand’s collection of surfboards, the same passion for storytelling runs throughout their production process. In fact, Masekela describes this process as “a shit-ton of love, handmade from the ground up.” Their small batch of boards are each shaped by famed South African surfer and surfboard shaper Hugh Thompson. The boards take their cues from some of South Africa’s point breaks (as The Fish board does of James Bay) or waves from their shoreline (as The Skom does of Kommetjie). South African terrain, homages from its thriving surf life and clean lines suffuse the surfboard collection, including Masekela’s own board.
“I have a Fish that Hugh Thompson made me that I got in Jeffrey’s Bay two years ago and every time I ride it, it’s a very special experience,” he says. “People are always coming up to me like, ‘What is that?’ Then, I tell them where it’s from and they’re like, ‘Whoa, no way, a surfboard from Africa!'” Piquing people’s curiosity about the company and, in turn, African surfing culture and Africa in general, plays into Masekela’s longterm goals for the brand.
People are always coming up to me like, ‘What is that?’ Then, I tell them where it’s from and they’re like, ‘Whoa, no way, a surfboard from Africa!’
“There’s a wild ignorance about Africa, like wild ignorance by incredibly educated people,” he says. “People really enjoy thinking it’s like the Discovery Channel. Mountains and animals are the peak of people’s curiosity—that is wildly frustrating. I hope Mami Wata can be a bit of a Trojan horse into building real curiosity and putting Africa on people’s bucket list.”
For Masekela, Mami Wata is more than a clothing brand. He envisions the line as an unexpected entry point for others to get to know Africa in an authentic way. “I get it,” he says. “No one wants to feel like they’re in a school lesson. So, how do we get you curious in a way that you don’t even know you’re being taught? We find an area of commonality that you thought you knew everything about, and we turn it upside down simply by storytelling.”
Making waves in the surf industry, Mami Wata is reshaping what the sport’s culture looks like—and the global stage beyond it. As the brand launches its first US collection this week to a broader, international audience, Masekela and the Mami Wata team are cutting down slews of misconceptions and sharing just some of the multiplicities of wonder their home has to offer.
All images courtesy of Mami Wata