On the surface, it looked like a simple enough morning out. Nineteen participants and one trainer would board a boat and head upriver to a nearby beach where they could spend the morning practising basic rescue skills before returning in time for lunch.
In reality, there was a major stumbling block in this deceptively simple plan: This is Sudan and every one of the participants and the trainer were female. This was a trip that the female participants had fought hard for. In a country where women must be modestly dressed at all times and swimming is considered by some to be off-limits to women, there was potential for the whole event to turn into a spectacle.
If that happened, there was a chance that the police would get involved, making use of Sudan’s indecency laws. That could result in serious consequences for our local partners – the Sea Scouts, as well as the individual women involved in the training. The local course coordinators were aware of the potential risks associated with this trip and had done all they could to ensure that everything ran smoothly but they were still understandably nervous.
Despite the challenges in reaching that point, the women were excited as they boarded the Sea Scout boat that would take them to Burri beach. There was singing and a party atmosphere on the boat ride up the Blue Nile.
On arrival at a secluded stretch of beach, Quebaker, the camp director and today’s minder stationed himself at the far end of the beach, close to the easiest access from nearby Nile Street. Carefully placing his chair so that he was looking down the Nile, away from where the women were training, he was there to ensure that we had a male spokesperson present if the police did show up or if anyone decided to cause trouble. Later, he would be joined by Osman, the logistics manager, armed with the detterrent of an unloaded AK47, borrowed from a friend in the Civil Defence, as a show of force “in case anyone bad decides to come and make trouble”.
The women got changed into their swimwear on the boat and I was surprised by the wide range of swimming attire. The most liberal swimming costumes consisted of a short-sleeved rash vest and running leggings cropped just below the knee, whilst the most conservative women wore tracksuit bottoms, a long-sleeved t-shirt covered by a loose dress that reached to their knees and a hood and scarf to cover their hair.
After some warm-up exercises on the beach, the women made their way into the cool water of the Nile. Over the course of two hours in the water with a break for a traditional Sudanese breakfast, the women learned and practised non-contact rescues using gerry cans and locally made rescue cans. They had a great time dragging unconscious casualties up the beach and putting them into the recovery position on the sand.
Without question, it was the first time that these women had been given the opportunity to practise rescue skills on the banks of the Nile. For some, it was the first time that they had even swum in the Nile or visited one of the Nile beaches.
At some point during the morning, three fishermen stopped downriver of our training site to wash their nets, glancing up occasionally at the strange sight of twenty women splashing around in water and performing rescue after rescue amongst themselves.
Other than that the morning was uneventful and none of the feared spectators materialised leaving Quebaker and Osman to a thankfully quiet morning.