When we first proposed the idea of a water safety course targeted at females in Sudan, we had no idea what a controversial and risk area we were getting into.
Our first meeting with the females was overwhelmingly positive. They were on time, which in Sudan, is almost on heard of. We could safely interpret this as a clear indication of their interest in the programme.
Although Sudan is a conservative Islamic society, males and females do mix. For example, at all the universities except for one are mixed gender, and the students mingle freely.
When we arrived at the Sea Scout base for the first day of training, the classroom had been arranged for us – two clearly separated sections. Males on one side, females on the other.
The discussions opened with exploring opinions around who drowns, where they drown, and why they drown. It was clear that there was some tension in the room. Sudanese discussions tend to be noisy affairs, with lots of people talking at the same time, lots of gesturing, and generally high spirits. However, there was an edge to this, there was something extra that was not quite comfortable. Things seemed to be a little bit more heated than normal – and the fans were working just fine.
Most of the women were either at University, or had University level education – and so spoke English very well – much better than the men. Naturally, some of them chose to express themselves in English – as it wasn’t everyday that they got to converse with a native speaker. This caused serious fireworks from the men, who were not happy about not being able to understand what was being said by the women.
At the break time, I (Dan) was approached by three of the males who were not happy. They explained that they felt that the women were “talking too much“.
I very carefully explained (through Tom the translator), that whilst I understood that Sudan had a different culture to the UK, within Nile Swimmers we have our own culture. Our culture is one of respect, and it doesn’t make any difference whether the person is male or female. We are polite to one another, and we allow everyone to speak their turn. I gently explained that nobody was a prisoner here, and that if they felt uncomfortable with this, then they were free to leave.
After the break time ended, one of the camp leaders came and delivered a pretty stern lecture – on the theme of mutual respect, which seemed to dampen down the issue.
After this, the tension definitely reduced, and in the afternoon we experimented with mixed gender groups for CPR and the Recovery Position (3 men and 3 women in each group – so there was no requirement for anyone to touch the opposite gender). It was absolutely fascinating to watch how different groups handled it. Some were quite happy with male/female contact, and others very carefully avoided it.
For such a cutting edge and pioneering concept… we seem to have come through it pretty successfully. It was only that evening, that the Sea Scouts explained what a big deal that it was – literally it has never been done before in Sudan.