When David Mesfin moved to St. Augustine Florida from Ethiopia in his teenage years, he found swimming and surfing to be a means of escape from his problems. The desire to seek refuge in the ocean also occurred during the Pandemic and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests for not only him but other Black surfers he knew.
“I thought they were experiencing the same thing I was, being cooped up,” Mesfin said. “We all knew the ocean was a place for us.”
This sparked the idea of creating “Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture,” a documentary that explores the history of Black aquatic culture. Mesfin noted how he wanted to give back to the Black surfing community.
The project started off as portraits that Mesfin sold, he then began researching the history of Black surfers by reading books like “AFROSURF.” Dr. Kevin Dawson wrote the introduction to the book.
“In that one-page introduction, [Dawson] wrote that surfing was independently developed from the coast of Senegal to Angola 1000 years ago,” Mesfin said. “That quote changed everything because it meant that this thing that I found, which is this refuge that we all felt as Black people, is something that is part of us.”
“Wade in the Water” has won the 2022 Sofia Art Film Award for Best Quarantine Film and the 2023 Mannheim Arts and Film Festival award for Best Culture Film.
The documentary goes back to the origin stories of African aquatic culture and how it ties to economics in the 1600s. Mothers would teach their kids how to swim by tying them to boards and putting them in the ocean, according to Mesfin.
“Economics played an important role in learning how to swim, understanding waves, understanding currents,” he said. “When you became an adult, you have to ride these big canoes, they’re called surf canoes, they break through the wave.”
Other topics the documentary touches on are the start of the Black Surfing Association, the story of legendary surfer Nick Gabaldon, the rise of Sharon Schaffer as the first African American female pro surfer, the start of the Black Surfers Collective, and new organizations that have been established since the death of George Floyd.
“The documentary does that, it talks about the history of it, introduces these organizations, gets to the challenges,” Mesfin said. “The last chapter of the documentary gets into very much spirituality.”
“Wade in the Water” producer Beyin Abraha helped Mesfin connect with young surfers, get footage of black surfers, and decide who would be in the documentary. To further his research, Mesfin also read books by Dr. Alison Jefferson and Dawson.
Mesfin also decided to create NFT to go along with the portraits and the documentary; 20 percent of the profits from the art will go to nonprofit surfing organizations. The NFT consists of portraits of Black surfers adorned with tree leaves as the Negro Spiritual “Wade in the Water” is playing.
“I wanted to juxtapose the tree with the portraits because for me, it meant reconnecting back to our roots, reconnecting back to nature and the original surfboards of Africa,” Mesfin said.
For more information on “Wade in the Water: A Journey Into Black Surfing and Aquatic Culture,” please visit https://wadeinthewaterproject.com/ .