6 May 2014

Africans Don't Swim*

I'm going to make a very broad generalization, but I'll qualify by starting with: By and large - In my experience - Of the people I know (so please don't send me angry letters)...Africans don't swim. They just don't. I mean think of what they were probably doing when you were a kid taking swimming lessons at the Y.

(Read more about it here: Why Africans Don't Swim.)

Our girls happened to learn to swim at a strangely young age. They love to swim. They dive down, they tread water, they are completely comfortable. This is something that is very scary for our Congolese friends to witness. Your baby just jumped in the pool! Help her! Help her! By the time our children come up for air, everyone poolside is clutching their chests.

When I was pregnant with Charlotte we went to Victoria Falls with a group of American and Congolese friends. We decided to go to the infamous Devil's Pool, which requires a bit of swimming in order to get there. Soon after we jumped in the river, our Congolese friend clung to me. He chose that moment to privately confess he couldn't swim, but had been too ashamed to tell the others. And so I crossed the Zambezi with a baby in my belly and I grown man hanging on to my bathing suit.

[A photo of this event has been withheld to protect the innocent. 
But nobody's stopping you from searching the Mama Congo archives. Ahem.] 

To bring the gift of swimming to our favorite Congolese friends, Jill and I have had this grand plan to get Mama Youyou and Mama Vida in the pool. Without notice, one day last week we said, "Alright ladies, you're going to swim today!" There could be no hesitations. No hemming and hawing about not having bathing suits. They would face their fear. Mama Youyou was totally game. Mama Vida was nonverbal.

Luckily one of our friends who happens to be really good at helping folks get comfortable with the water, wanted to help the mamas swim too. Up until this point, Mama Vida still hadn't agreed to learn. Mama Youyou asked her if she would just sit close by for moral support. But when it came time to walk to the pool, Mama Vida remembered some "important tasks" she still needed to do. I said to Mama Youyou, "Maybe she's too scared. Let's not force her." So we left without her.

As Mama Youyou went to step in the water, Mama Vida appeared, jumped in the pool and had no problem swimming. (Weird. We still have absolutely no explanation for her hesitations.)

Buoyed by Mama Vida's fearlessness of the water, Mama Youyou went to step in the pool...

She just couldn't do it...

The girls cheered her on...

The rest of the time Andrew held her hand, walked with her around the shallow end, and got her comfortable with the water. Meanwhile, Mama Vida swam circles around them. Literally. Everyone loves a show-off best friend.

Now Mama Youyou's telling all her friends and family they really should learn to swim. Because everyone should!

*Africans don't swim, except for Mama Vida and many, many other competent African swimmers.

P.S. The most amazing swimming I've ever witnessed was by these boys and their empty water-bottles-as-flotation-devices in the rapids between the two Congos. I could barely watch.

Brazzaville swimmers. (TASOK folks, see our hill in the background?)


  1. My husband, who is Kenyan, didn't learn to swim until I was pregnant with our first child. He couldn't bear the thought of our child-to-be falling into a pool and not being able to save her... He is a decent swimmer now, but if either of our kids ever fell in the deep end, it would still be me who did the saving... :

    1. Yay! Good for him. I can't imagine how hard it must be to learn as an adult.

    2. I tried to get through the article on why Africans don't swim, but it was kind of a heavy read. I have 2 African American daughters and I can tell you one reason Africans don't swim is the hair! Right after I've spent 12 hours on combing out and rebraiding, I am NOT going to let them jump in the pool and get chlorine in it! But they do swim--one so well she wishes she was a mermaid.

    3. Oh yes! You're so right. The hair. This was another thing that was completely baffling about Mama Vida. She has on new hair. And she still jumped right in. That's double bravery. Swimming and getting your hair wet!

  2. What a lovely story! Your post made me stop and think about how I've always taken being able to swim for granted, but it is not a skill that everybody should be assumed to have. Mama Youyou and Mama Vida should be very proud of themselves for taking the plunge, both metaphorically and literally. It's great to see their smiles!

    Stella Hammond @ Palm City Pools


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