Swim teaching in Bangladesh – Becky Horsbrugh – Team Selkie
27th July 2017
As I’ve outlined in previous blogs, last year I was a bit ill for several months. I spent a great deal of time recuperating at home before returning, finally, back to work and some semblance of a normal life (and a return to swimming). That gave me plenty of time to think about what I was doing with my life, and being so ill made me realise I needed to get on and do things I always talked about and never actually did, and to have more adventures. So first of all I signed up to get my full swim teacher qualification so I could actually start passing on my knowledge to others.
I had always wanted to visit India or Pakistan or somewhere in that region, so that was also added to my list. Then one day I was looking at twitter and came across an article in the Guardian newspaper about some young girls playing cricket in Bangladesh, and it talked about this village called Sreepur, run by a British charity, where they were living. Hence started my interest in Bangladesh, a country I readily admit I knew so little about beforehand. I googled the village name and found their website and other articles about their work and thought, I so want to go here. I want to go here and somehow help.
I then read about drowning being the biggest cause of child death in Bangladesh. So that very afternoon I found the contact details for the village and sent through an email asking if they would like anyone to visit and help teach swimming. That was the start of several months of communication with Sreepur. I soon found out that a team was due to visit the village as part of a special programme travelling around Bangladesh teaching drowning prevention. The village was happy for me to visit whilst they were there. In March I ran the Hackney Half marathon on behalf of the village (with just 7 weeks to prepare) and finally after months of planning I finally arrived in Dhaka just a few weeks ago.
I was hooked by the country as soon as I arrived. I was met by someone from the village and we made our way by car to Sreepur, which is north of the capital. Traffic was horrendous but I had been warned about that! The following day I had a chance to check out the swim programme, and find out more about the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research in Bangladesh who are running the drowning prevention scheme ( http://www.ciprb.org/ ) Here the organisation details some facts and figures on drowning there which are quite shocking. I’ve pulled out here some of the stats:
Drowning in Bangladesh
• Drowning deaths claim 20,685 lives each year
• Approximately 18,000 children under the age of 18 drown each year
• This equates to approximately 50 children a day (in the UK that figure is around 50 a year).
• More than 80% of the drowning occurs in natural bodies of water (ditches, ponds and canals) less than 20 metres from the house
• Most drowning occurs in rural areas during the day between 9am-2pm when the mother is busy with housework or other chores and the child is left unsupervised.
Sreepur village is essentially a refuge for mothers and their children who need some help – maybe the mothers have been widowed or rescued from life in a brothel for example. Most families live there for 2-3 years and then return to villages all around Bangladesh. At the moment there are around 280 children and 160 mothers there. The charity running the village were keenly aware of how big a problem drowning is in the country but lacked the skills to teach swimming properly. They have a swim tank where the youngest children play but older kids were more of an issue.
So the CIPRB scheme should dramatically help the children aged 6 and above. Sreepur has signed up for the swim programme for two months this summer and two next summer – at a cost of around 3 thousand pounds, which is a big amount for a small charity such as this. The children need to pass three essential skill tests – swim 25 metres freestyle, tread water or float for 30 seconds and perform a rescue from dry land. There are few proper pools in country areas, so most children, like those in Sreepur are taking their lessons in an adapted pond. Two swim teachers live on site for the duration of the scheme.
It was fascinating observing the first lesson so I could understand how it all worked. The children went through a warm up with their teachers, which included jogging on the spot and some stretches. They then had their nails checked before being divided into groups of around 5 or 6; boys separate from girls. The swimming area structure is made out of bamboo. The smaller rectangle has a bamboo base as well, and the water is around 3 or so feet deep I would say? So safe enough for the youngest children. The more confident and older children are able to swim in the outer area if supervised, which is deeper. That doesn’t have a bamboo base and feels very sludgy underfoot! While one group took part in a lesson, the next pupils looked on attentively.
Each group had around 30 minutes in the water – and they have six lessons a week. Most amazing thing – which really shouldn’t have amazed me if I had thought about it properly – was they were teaching exactly what I would teach to a youngster learning to swim. They even used the English words for it. ‘Push, glide, kick, pull.’ So basically progressing through the sequence. The water really is a vivid green. And there are fish. One child proclaimed there was also a big snake.
I must admit I was a tad hesitant about actually getting into the pond after seeing the colour of the water. It is rather green and rather murky. But the following day it was my turn to join in. I grabbed my swim hat, and headed over to the swim area. I wore black leggings and the thinnest shalwar kameez I possessed. The children giggled as I headed down the steps and into the water. Western visitors are quite a novelty – especially blonde ones.
Both swim teachers – Mokhta and Shubarna – spoke very little English, but with hand gestures and the odd word understood, we were able to communicate very well. So basically every lesson went through the same schedule. Starting off with ducking our heads under the water (where you can’t see a thing). The children were then led through a sequence. First doing push and glide from one side to the other, one by one and then as a group. Myself and the teacher demonstrated each time what the children had to do and they thought it was really funny I was joining in.We then introduced the kick and finally the pull, the arms. With the younger children we then played little games whilst the bigger and more confident children were allowed to try and swim a ‘length’ in the outer bamboo area. We had at least 4 groups in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. When the children had left for the day myself and the swim teachers would have a peaceful swim alone, racing butterfly or backstroke, which is far more difficult when you are fully clothed…
It was wonderful seeing the joy on the children’s faces as they swam. The laughter and the tom foolery when they decided to splash each other. Their enthusiasm. Yet such a simple setting. A pond in rural Bangladesh, taking swimming back to its total basics, as a survival skill. I hope so much that more lives will be saved by such a great scheme. After a week in the village I headed to Dhaka for a few days and was also able to visit the programme in an urban setting. Speedo has given its backing to the scheme and the RNLI is also very much involved in Bangladesh, particularly in southern areas with a life guard programme. It was an incredible experience in an incredible country and I hope it was just the start of my involvement in the country and in drowning prevention schemes there. I’m already making my plans to return.