Surf Aid Founder Dr Dave Jenkins

Published in The Listener

Unless you are a surfer you have probably never heard of the Mentawais.  If you do surf you will probably know that this chain of more than 40 islands is one of the hottest new surfing destinations on the planet.  Deep ocean swells roll uninterrupted across the massive stretch of the Indian Ocean until they reach the Mentawai Islands.  There, as the swells hit the reefs surrounding each island, they pitch up into some of the most consistently perfect waves in the world.  Mechanical tubing barrels that break like clockwork.

The search for the perfect wave is an almost mystic quest that has seen surfers combing the coastlines of the globe for decades.  Since surfers first discovered the perfect breaks of the Mentawais in the late 1980s they have been going there in greater and greater numbers. One of them is New Zealand doctor Dave Jenkins.

Two years ago he was living in Singapore working as the director of education for a corporate health insurance company.  A lifelong surfer, he visited the Mentawais on a surfing trip.  As always he took along his medical bag.  What he found when he visited one of the local villages changed his life.  “It was heart breaking” Jenkins recalls.  “I went ashore to the nearest village with my bag, told them I was a doctor and asked if anyone needed any help.  The people just started bringing out their sick.  They were literally bringing them out of the jungle on wheelbarrows.  And these people were dying from things like TB, cholera, malaria and diarrhea.  Diseases that are eminently preventable or treatable.  I realised something had to be done to help these people.”

The only way to reach the islands is by yacht.  According to the Australian-based Surf Travel Company, this year some 2000 surfers, primarily from the US, Australia and Japan, will visit the Mentawis.  But most of these yacht based surfers will pass their trip ignorant of the fact that nearby in the desperately poor villages, the local people are dying.

Jenkins however decided that if no-one else would help he would.  He came up with the concept of Surf Aid and quit his job to devote himself to the cause.  Surf Aid ( is a charity that aims to tap the lucrative surf industry and surfers themselves to give something back to people living in poverty in surfing destinations such as the Mentawais.  “Despite the soulful image of the sport surfers are too often ‘takers’” Jenkins notes.  “In places like the Mentawais they go and ‘take’ the surfing experience but don’t give back to the locals – locals who have nothing and who urgently need help.  The surfing world owes a debt of gratitude to these people.  It is their reefs and their waterways that we enjoy and we should put something back in return.”

The figures are shocking.  Mentawai means the ‘islands of good fortune’ but it seems good fortune has deserted these islands.  In  jungle areas child mortality is 50% before the age of 5.  Of every 6 children born, 4 will die before they reach adulthood.  Not only is the population under threat but so is their unique culture.  The way of life on the Mentawais is an ancient one little changed by outside influences until recently.  With spiritual beliefs based on animism the culture is inextricably woven to the jungle environment in which the people live.  There is some debate about the ethnic origins of the Mentawaians but a group of anthropologists from the University of Kent in Canterbury say the population of approximately 60,000 is comprised of three ethnic groups inhabiting the four largest Mentawai islands.  Most of the contact with the outside world has been through merchants and missionaries. The Indonesian government largely left the Mentawaians to themselves aside from occasional attempts to alter their traditional way of life.  Recently the Mentawai practice of filing the teeth into points and tattooing the body were banned by the government, although there is less effort to try and police this now.

But the hot humid climate and dense jungle environment the people live in make a perfect breeding ground for disease, particularly insect borne diseases.  Whilst various products from the rainforest are used in traditional healing methods by the tribal shaman or skiers, these practices though a core of the local culture are not as effective as modern medicine.

As tourism grows and the relentless march of Westernisation begins to affect the Mentawais change is inevitable.  “There is a lot of debate about managing the impact of tourism over there.  The boat operators are starting to compete pretty vigorously with each other, but while this goes on the locals are still dying” says Jenkins who is about to go back to the islands to run a malaria campaign.  But Surf Aid is not yet another charity with a large and expensive infrastructure.  Jenkins has established the organisation with a clear aim of empowering the local people to help themselves.  “When I visited I realised most of the human resources were already there” he notes.  “We just had to give them the facilities and training to enable them to help their own people.  We have been working with the skiereis through Dr Yan, a local medical anthropologist who is probably the most educated Mentawian.  The sikereis are happy to have western medicine where needed and we are working with them to do this in a way which doesn’t threaten their important role in Mentawai culture.”

Jenkins aims to establish a clinic in the islands and to employ Mentawai nurses to go into the villages to provide health care to those who cannot get to the clinic.  The outreach programme will also deliver malaria nets and provide health education to villagers.  “On this next trip I’ll be delivering over 500 nets and running a series of clinics throughout the islands.  Between 3 and 5 people can sleep under each net and we aim to get 80% of the population under nets in the next couple of years.  I’m also bringing up Dr Steve Hathaway, a World Health Organisation consultant who will monitor and evaluate the rates and types of malaria in the islands.”

But establishing Surf Aid has not been easy.  Surfing is big business and many of the surfwear labels are now powerful multinational corporations.  Company’s like Rip Curl have turnover’s approaching the billion dollar mark.  Realising this Jenkin’s set out to tap the current corporate vogue for cause-related marketing.  “We hoped the labels would see the potential to be aligned with a great cause by supporting us but it has been a hard road.  Ironically our biggest support has been from outside of the surfing industry.  People in the music business in particular have seen value in the concept.”

Raising the necessary funding has seen Jenkins do anything from going on tour with The Big Day Out, to organising parties in London nightclubs.  He has done numerous presentations to companies and is starting to have some success.  “Now we have some runs on the board with the malaria campaign companies are starting to take us more seriously.  We just secured a large grant from the publishers of the Lonely Planet guide books to help us establish the clinic and the surfing industry is starting to help out.”  With support from some of the world’s top surfers the cause is gaining credibility in surfing circles and the boat operators are also supporting Surf Aid by charging a levy on all visiting surfers.

A youthful 41 Jenkins’ passion for his mission is infectious and despite the inherent difficulties he seems to be enjoying his mission.  “It was one of those decisions you make in life.  Will you go back to the corporate job or will you try and do something.  I just knew it would haunt me if I didn’t do something.  And it’s been a great adventure doing it” he laughs.

As well as being the founder and medical director of Surf Aid, Jenkins effectively does everything from PR to PA for the charity.  He has an executive board that includes top surfers, doctors and business people but it is Jenkins who makes it happen.  His latest idea is for a charity challenge.  “Charity challenges are gaining in popularity around the world” says Jenkins.  “The idea is that people raise a sum of money and actually come up to the Mentawais for 2 weeks in October.  We will travel into the jungle and meet the sikereis.  They’ll get a chance to participate in the malaria campaign as we deliver nets to various villages.  And of course they’ll also get a chance to surf some great breaks with some of the world’s top surfers.  So far we have 5 surfing business people signed up.”

Clearly this is charity 21st century style.  An appealing mix of aid and adventure.  But don’t get Jenkins wrong.  He is deadly serious about Surf Aid.  As he notes “when you treat someone, especially a child, who is dying from something that could be easily prevented it is hard to walk away without helping.”  And Dr Dave Jenkins is not walking away.