The title is a quote from one of the training programme participants this week.
In our culture, women do not swim.
As a drowning prevention geek, I find discussions around this issue – and the issue of perceptions of risk to be absolutely fascinating. I love learning more about how different people perceive the risk of drowning, and also what strategies they think would help to reduce the risk.
My thoughts (although I did not voice them) in reply to that comment were
Maybe not my friend, but they are definitely drowning.
His point was somewhat undermined a couple of hours later when a group of twelve women started to play in the water a few hundred metres away from our camp. They were covered from head to toe in typical Sudanese clothing – and removed none of it to enter the water. They had a lovely time splashing, whooping, and screaming for several hours in water over waist depth.
So no, they aren’t swimming as such – but they are certainly in and around the water, and they are certainly at risk.
In fact, there is an argument to say that as the women in this society have the principal role in domestic chores and child-rearing, that they need to go to the Nile to collect water far more regularly than men. Therefore they could be at an even higher risk of drowning than men.
We presented the group with the WHO infographic (in Arabic) with the key statistics and prevention strategies. This led onto a good discussion around which of these methods could work in Sudan. It is interesting how many of the ideas from the participants revolved around preventing access to the Nile. Whether this is an instinctive human response, or whether they are simply voicing the current strategy that the government and the Civil Defence are implementing – I do not know.
It took quite some time before the participants would entertain the idea that perhaps by exposing people (children) to the risk of the Nile, in a controlled and careful way, that we can then teach them to manage that risk more effectively. Denying access simply does not work in this context, where the Nile plays such an important role in daily life for millions of Sudanese.
In closing, it seems poignant that exactly eight years to the day we started the very first Nile Swimmers programme, we welcomed and registered the first female instructor candidates onto the Basic Aquatic Survival programme that starts tomorrow. A very strong group of women indeed. We cannot wait to get started, it will doubtlessly be another humbling experience.