“Unselfish and noble actions are the most radiant pages in the biography of souls.” – David Thomas
Alphanso Appleton is young man living with a purpose – to bring attention to the natural beauty and tourism potential of his home country that has for too long been associated with tragedy rather than possibility.
Alphanso is from Liberia – and as one of the country’s top surfers and an aspiring professional photographer – hopes to represent a new vision of his country based on endless perfect waves and friendly welcoming people.
He is President of the Liberian Surfing Federation, affiliated with the International Surfing Association which is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the World Governing Authority for Surfing. His incredibly powerful photographs of Liberian culture and surf have been published in media worldwide, most recently in The Guardian.
A spokesman for the budding locally-run sustainable surf tourism industry, Alphanso is excited to share the incredible beaches of Liberia with the world – and to encourage surfers and adventure travelers to visit and experience the beauty first-hand. He intends to use “adventure sport as development” as his platform for building awareness of Liberia as a destination – and to encourage industry in the region, particularly post-Ebola.
Alphanso is a native son of Robertsport, Liberia, a much-talked-about destination for global-minded surfers before the Ebola outbreak in 2014. The outbreak decimated the local surf tourism industry and affected the economic situation of the entire region. It’s Alphanso’s intent – now that there is a proven Ebola vaccine – to encourage people to return and begin enjoying the region’s legendary surf once more.
Through the Strongheart Amplify program, he will be meeting with international surf and tourism industry and media leaders, working to reframe coverage of the country in a positive light and bring awareness of the regional surf industry beyond just the inner-circle of adventurous surf professionals and surfing aid workers who whisper about the incredible Liberian waves with hushed reverence.
Alphanso is an anomaly among his peers in the small fishing village where he grew up. At twenty-two, he’s not only a highly skilled surfer in a country where few even know how to swim, but he also has ambitions of becoming a world-class photographer – and has already had his photos featured in international publications.
Alphanso has a zen spirit and innate kindness that is made all the more remarkable when you understand the level of danger and violence he was exposed to during the brutal Liberian civil war in his youth.
He was born in 1993, during the heat of the conflict, in Robertsport, which was a rebel stronghold. When he was three years old, his family left the land they had lived on for generations and fled from the fighting by wooden canoe down the coast of Liberia. The family braved heavy rains and thunderstorms for days, paddling through the turbulent Atlantic Ocean waters until they finally reached the relative safety of the capital city of Monrovia.
His father eventually left to return to their village to look for other family members and without his support, Alphanso found himself alone on the streets, only thirteen years old. He woke up every morning at 3am to hurry down to the harbor to become a day laborer fisherman on the large wooden canoes that worked out of the bays and ocean nearby. Alphanso was small for his age but still pushed himself to do a grown man’s work on the boats. Finding food was a daily challenge and school was an impossible dream.
After a year of homelessness, Alphanso’s father learned that his son was somewhere on the streets – and came to take him home. Alphanso writes, “To my greatest surprise, on a Saturday evening, I heard that someone was looking for me and when I got there I saw my dad and he told me that I should pack my things because he had found somewhere suitable for us to live. With the past pains and sorrow in my heart, I silently gathered my few things and we made our way to my place of birth in Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County. When we got there I felt what it was like to be home and to once again be loved by someone. Right now I feel blessed having a father and grateful that he came for me in the time when I felt lost and hopeless.”
It was back in his hometown of Robertsport that Alphanso first saw the sport that would change his life: surfing. Foreign doctors first introduced the sport to Robertsport during the civil war, surfing the world- class waves in between sessions of sewing up bullet wounds.
Once the war ended the doctors left but soon more surfers came, lured by the world class waves. Alphanso began spending every possible moment attempting to learn on boards borrowed from the visiting surfers. He devoured surf magazines they left behind and gradually improved, finding incredible solace in learning to merge with the long rolling flow of the ocean.
He became a leader and an advocate while a Fellow with the renowned Strongheart Program. He was shy and unassuming when he first came to the attention of Strongheart but he quickly showed his remarkable maturity and compassion through his steady willingness to help enthusiastically with anything that was needed within the community. He found tasks that were unseen by others and did them without calling attention to his work. He brought fresh flowers for the dinner table, tenderly cared for a baby of a young mother who needed help.
He co-founded the Liberian Surfing Federation, which is now recognized internationally by the top surfing association in the world. He also worked to help ensure clean drinking water in his community by distributing water filters and teaching lessons in how to use them. He continues to advocate for clean water – both drinking and the ocean – and intends to work to let the world know that climate change affects countries like Liberia in a very drastic and immediate way.
He shone with brilliance when he took a photography workshop through Strongheart – and began documenting the harsh but beautiful world around him. He captured the plight of local villagers flooded out by storms, children selling fish on the beach, the pride of a village girl first learning to surf.
His photos came to the attention of several well-known surf magazines through his mentor Sean Brody and he was featured in an article in SURFERS JOURNAL, along with multiple full-page spreads of his exquisite photos.
He is truly a young man who – despite the conflict and harsh environment that once surrounded him – has maintained his goodness, creativity, openness, and optimism for his future. As he says, “No matter what, I have always had the thought and feeling that I am here for a purpose.”