Sara Gadala visited the Nile Swimmers programme at the Sudanese Sea Scouts Headquarters on Wednesday afternoon. She is well-known as Sudan’s first female swimmer and is quite the celebrity in Khartoum. Now in her 60s, she started swimming as a young girl as part of her therapy for polio. Discovering that she had a talent for the sport, she started to compete in races, encouraged and supported by her father.
Over her career as a swimmer, she has competed in middle and long distance open water races across Africa and Europe, and even crossed the English Channel in 1975, the only Sudanese person to have ever done so. She has played a major role in the Sudanese Swimming Federation for many years and our conversation is constantly interrupted as people approach her to say hello. She is invariably greeted as “Captain” or “Coach” and she explains that she taught most of them to swim when they were very young, either through the Sea Scouts or the Swimming Federation.
In between these greetings, she explains the challenges of swimming for women in Sudan and the value that she sees in the Nile Swimmers programme. She explains that Sudanese women are expected not to swim. She has argued countless times over her life that the fear of wearing “non-Islamic” dress in the water should not prevent women from being involved in the sport. She still swims nearly every day, carefully covered in a swim suit that covers her to the wrists and the ankles, with a modest skirt and a hood to cover her hair.
In a society where swimming is not expected from women, it is of no surprise that teaching women water rescue skills is considered unnecessary. That leads to another problem. As the swimming pools of Khartoum start to accommodate female swimmers through women’s session, there is a need for female lifeguards to watch the water. With little formal training of any kind, there is a severe shortage of female coaches, let alone trained lifeguards. Any training that they have has been passed on to them by word of mouth and the quality of the rescue advice that they receive is dubious.
She laughs as she recounts the story of a pool that was given some money to buy rescue equipment. None of the lifeguards knew how to use it and so it sat by the lifeguard chair, in her words, for decorative purposes only.
She fully understands that this lack of skills and knowledge is a big problem in Sudan. Outside of Khartoum, she says, there are many villages where the women have to cross the water every day to reach islands where they tend to small allotments to feed their families.
The women cannot swim and they wade through the water, often up to their shoulders with baskets of produce and tools balanced on their heads. One slip is all it takes for one of these women to drown. These same women rely on the Nile for water for cooking, washing and cleaning and with no understanding of how to keep themselves safe near the water, it is clear why they say that everyone in Sudan knows of someone who has drowned in the Nile.
With this in mind, it is clear to see why Sara is so ecstatic about the Nile Swimmers programme. She says that this is the first programme in Sudan that has taught women lifesaving skills and, with the exception of a pool lifeguard course run by a French NGO in 2004, she cannot think of any other lifesaving training for men either.
She is convinced that programmes like this are what Sudan needs. “If every person in Sudan can know how to be safe near the water, and if we can have trained lifeguards as well” she says, “then we can really change things”.