Changing the Tide to Help Benin Swim
The idea to start a swim school in Benin came to me when I saw these kids hanging off the side of a mud-filled boat in the middle of Lake Nokue. I was padding in between Cotonou to Ganvie, the 4-mile route which links the fishing village of Ganvie with the markets of Cotonou on the mainland. Traveled for centuries by residents of the “floating village”, Ganvie has been a home for those wishing to escape since the times of the Portuguese slave trade.
When the kids saw a foreigner, I immediately heard the familiar chant for a few coins. It wasn’t in French, these kids mostly speak the local African dialect, Fonbe. It suddenly dawned on me that they were dredging mud from the bottom of the lake. Every now and then one would disappear under the murky water and then reappear a few seconds later simultaneously gagging and clinging again to the boat. I wanted to tell the kids to swim over to my boat, but I then realized that although they lived their whole lives surrounded by water, none of the kids could swim.
Surrounded by Water
Benin is a small, French-speaking country squeezed between Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa. It is part of the Francophone confederation of countries which often are forgotten in what people think of as the emerging Africa. What I also learned from living there for 10 months is that peaceful, democratic African countries don’t make the news. Cotonou, the largest city, is literally surrounded by water on three sides: the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Nokue and a small inlet that connects them. The city is below sea-level and when a storm comes, the streets flood and the homes along the beaches are washed away by the high waves. In the storms of 2008, 18,000 homes were destroyed in Cotonou alone. (Nguessan, 2008) .
The ocean is an enemy not only because it destroys local’s property, but because so many people drown in the ferocious surf. There are no lifeguards on the beaches along in Cotonou proper, and leaving the city there is nothing but palm-frond huts. The families who live in them are without water or electricity and cook over open fires. The sand road that runs along the beach called the Route de Peches, is passable only with a 4x4 vehicle or a motorcycle and washes out regularly. Because of the lack of infrastructure, once a child or adult is pulled into the waves, there is no real hope of saving them.
Even compared to the rest of Africa, Benin is far behind creating a chain of resources for addressing the drowning problem. Togo, it’s French-speaking neighbor, is beginning to understand the importance of water safety and became a member of the International Lifesaving Association in 2012. In countries like Ghana and The Gambia, the British-based non-profit Royal National Lifeguarding Institute (RNLI) is assisting in training lifeguards and establishing safety zones on the local beaches. Ghana also has organized swimming and water-safety schools.
It’s is hard to say how many people drown on these beaches but according to most of the experts, the numbers are drastically underreported and will never be known. (Kobusingye, 2006) . A study in Uganda that investigated this phenomenon found that over a 5-year span, there were no reported fatalities due to drowning at the five largest hospitals in the country. This followed an earlier study which surveyed over 7000 Ugandans and found drowning as the leading cause of fatal injury accountable for over 27% of injury-related deaths.
Another study of five countries in Southeast Asia found that the rate of actual drownings in the five countries was about 30 per 100,000. This figure made incidental drowning the number one ranked cause of death for those less than 18 years old. Earlier larger studies put this rate much lower at around 6.6 cases per 100,000.
Africans Can’t Swim
For anyone who has traveled to the beaches in West Africa, the lack of people on the beaches or in the water is striking. In stark contrast to my native California, the ocean is not a place of swimming, surfing, or paddling. The only ones who brave it are the strongest and they have the hardest lives of all- fishing. I met many boys who spent their whole lives living in traditional beach villages and were told the ocean is full of monsters which will drag them to their death. For Beninese, the ocean is just a vast expanse to gaze at and wonder about the world outside.
As a teacher, I heard my student’s stories of friends who had drowned in the surf. According to UNICEF report, drowning for adolescents “is a result of less supervision and increased independence, increased risk-taking, and greater exposure to open water during work or leisure”. Boys are about twice as likely as girls to die from drowning. What this means is that those daring few who venture out into the surf are the ones who die. The ocean is taking the most courageous from the youth of Benin.
The people in the community fear the ocean but they also believe they can’t swim. I showed pictures of American Olympian Cullen Jones and explained that some of the best young swimmers in the United States were of African descent, helping to .
On a positive note, the number of Africans swimming both recreationally and in competition is increasing. In Uganda, the Uganda Swim Federation (USF) had it’s first national club swim championships in 2015. Every year the open water swim in Dakar to the Ile de Goree is drawing more competitors and the level of competition is higher. The tipping point would be a medaling African swimmer at the Olympics.
Changing the Tide in Benin
In order to transform life for Beninese, water safety and swimming need to be taught from childhood on. Not surprisingly, learning to swim falls along economic lines; those in rich countries learn to swim while kids in poor countries don’t have the opportunity. Countries like Benin need long-term, sustainable programs to educate children on water safety and swimming.
There are many pools in Cotonou, but most are at the tourist hotels. For a fee, local residents can use the pool but the price is steep. Sometimes the atmosphere at some of these pools is less friendly to locals and their children as well. One time on a business trip, I stayed in a high-end hotel chain in the north of the country. While a few locals were swimming in the pool, the majority of visitors were prostitutes there to serve the other rich foreigners at the hotel.
In order to increase pool access, new public pools need to be built. Partnerships need to be struck between like-minded hotel owners and community leaders to allow families to visit the pools at certain times or days. And NGOs and the government need to come together to build new community pools. The pool at Friendship Stadium was a great idea, but like most public works projects in Africa, it wasn’t maintained.
Even if there are pools, there is still the question of how to create a sustainable model for a swim school. A swim school in Ghana, Felix Fitness, provides swim lessons for all ages by moving from one hotel pool to another every day of the week. The school also provides lessons to impoverished students by matching them with paying students through a one-for-one enrollment strategy. This way the school can better serve all Ghanaians and not just the upper-class. In addition, the money that is received by the swim school also funds the non-profit Felix Foundation which teaches water safety at public schools.
Starting my own non-profit, I am partnering with Felix Fitness as well as Starfish Aquatic Institute which has done swim instructor training before in Africa. Swim Benin is now a becoming a registered training center with a specially-designed curriculum which caters to teaching swimming in low-resource areas. So far, the biggest hurdle is finding suitable candidates in Benin who have the teaching as well as swimming skills to join us. Once we train them as swim instructors, my goal is to raise funds in California to help the new swim instructors start their own schools.
Dan Airth is an ESL teacher with over 10 years experience and has lived abroad in Japan and Africa. Last year, he studied and taught under a special fellowship with the U.S. Department of State and was assigned to live in Cotonou, Benin for 10 months.
For more information on his non-profit, Swim Benin, please see his website www.helpbeninswim.weebly.com or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a campaign on go fund me at https://www.gofundme.com/HelpBeninS