A DIP IN THE POOL
The swim survival container project – protecting children from drowning
Primary school principal Nwabisa Nkata has lived and worked in the Port St Johns area for more than 30 years, and has seen more than her fair share of drownings, especially children. She says the swim survival container project will save lives.
When Port St Johns primary school principal Nwabisa Nkata boarded a plane a few years ago, she listened intently to the safety instructions, especially the part about how to float, should the plane be forced to crash-land on water.
“Well, I knew that was it. I would be the number one first person to sink straight down and drown. No way I could possibly last in the water,” she says. But, following the installation of a survival swimming programme at her rural school this week, she says hopefully that sort of existential dread will be banished.
The Noah Christian Academy in Tombo, in the greater Port St Johns municipality, is only the second school in the country to receive a Swimming Survival Centre, a 12m shipping container modified to house a small pool, changing room and office. These containers, which are the brainchild of National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Drowning Prevention Manager Andrew Ingram, come with a swim survival instructor who teaches children four basic water survival skills: breath control, body orientation in water, how to float and how to move a minimum of 5m through water. This second container was sponsored by Speedo’s international water safety initiative, Swim United, which originated in the UK.
The first container was delivered to Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape a year ago, and provided a steep but practical learning curve in managing water quality, water temperature and other logistical headaches such as transporting pupils safely from classroom to pool, Ingram says.
Nkata (47), who cannot swim herself but plans to be one of the first in the pool, says she has lived and worked in the area for more than 30 years, and has seen more than her fair share of drownings, especially children. She says the survival swimming centre project will save lives.
“I have so many stories of community members who have lost a child to drowning. A teacher at the school lost her child in 2019, it was so sad. Kids go swim in the Umzimvubu River, and when they get into trouble the bravest adults run and try to assist, but no one here has had any formal swimming training. When this container arrived, it was like I had had a dream where I could see children with the confidence and skill to swim.”
South Africa is ranked 44th out of 183 countries in terms of drownings, with about 1,450 deaths each year. A third of these are children under 14, and of these, four times as many boys die than girls. Less than 15% of South Africans know how to swim. Last month, a small Polokwane community was distraught after two boys aged nine and 11 drowned trying to cross the local Seshego Dam using polystyrene blocks as flotation devices.
NSRI national water-safety team leader, instructor Valerie Barlow says that research shows that the body of a drowning victim is often recovered right below where they went under the water, often close to a potential safe zone. The ability to move a short distance through the water without panicking, or even just to float on one’s back, therefore, could save lives.
“People access water as part of their daily routine, whether it is fetching water from a river, or crossing a river to get to school or work. Most kids here know someone who has drowned or have themselves had a non-fatal drowning incident. There are no facilities in these rural areas, so kids tend to gather around rivers and dams to play. Add to that all the fierce rip currents along the Wild Coast,” she adds.
Nkata says that of the 23 children in her Grade 7 class, 18 had already returned the permission slips. Some of the parents had not yet signed the slips, as they were too scared. “This is such an unusual concept. People don’t know yet what it’s all about. I never saw anything like this growing up, so as more kids see their classmates actually being in the water, the word will get around. That is actual service delivery,” she says.
The school plans to accommodate swim survival lessons into its existing physical education classes.
Speedo’s Brad Gale says basic survival swimming skills would give kids “an advantage and fighting chance they otherwise would never have had before”.
Ingram says the goal is to start rolling out a container for delivery every 12 weeks, all over South Africa. Corporate and private sponsorship would lessen the burden on cash-strapped municipalities to provide water safety facilities, he says. DM/ML
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