Teaching Swimglish in Sri Lanka

Swimming and learning English at the same time?
Sounds like fun. But as I discovered first hand, for women in Sri Lanka, it’s more than a lifestyle choice. It’s a matter of life and death.

Teaching in Sri Lanka

The sun is a scorching 40 degrees. Women begin to arrive for their ‘Five Day Crash Swimming Course’ wearing a colourful and eclectic mix
of western clothing and traditional saris. But they have just one question on their minds. Is it safe to swim?

In Sri Lanka, that’s not a casual question. Instead, it’s a life-threatening conundrum, especially for women. Eighty per cent of those who drowned in the 2004 tsunami were women and children. In fact, more Sri Lankans drown every year than die of dengue fever. And yet death by drowning is not recognised as a major public health issue.

Keen to volunteer abroad and develop my swim teaching, I came across the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project , whose mission is to tackle the country’s tragic drowning statistics. Christina Fonfe, BEM, its director, accepts my application. She had seen something in my skillset that was of value to
her project.

A month or so before departure, I receive my week’s duties. In addition to teaching 18 hours of swimming, I am expected to deliver 10 hours of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). I’d applied for a volunteership role 8,185 miles away when I experience English teaching through my role at an international
school 10-minutes from home.

But the more I learn about the project, the more teaching Swimglish makes sense. Preventing drowning through teaching women and teenage girls to swim, ensures that they, in turn, can teach their own children and families. What’s more, the best are trained in English as swimming teachers to international standards which provides an immediate micro-economy benefit and elevation of social status to those women in the community. This
closely fits with the UN’s Millennium Goal, outlined in 2015, to Promote Gender Equality and to Empower Women.

Vinila is one such success story; a nonswimmer who has mastered the finer points of bilateral breathing and who not only teaches, but also runs the programme at its Ahangama HQ. Vinila’s broad skillset ranges from pool maintenance to swimmer recruitment- all this alongside roles of wife and mother. Our English lessons will support Vinila in extending her students’ knowledge of ‘Swimglish’ and facilitate communication with Christina.

Day 1: Vinila meticulously records attendance and checks each woman’s
Passport to Swimming (more on this later).

The swimmers use the changing rooms to
get into costumes, leggings and swimming hats, before taking a refreshing shower overlooking the balustrade separating the centre’s palm-fringed lawn and swimming pool from the Indian Ocean. “Is it safe to swim?”,
they ask before entering the water. Later, the importance of this
question will keep me awake at night.

Always ask a local whether the water is safe to swim in; never swim alone; always swim in clear water: Golden rules shared on day one. By day three,
more confident of my surroundings, craving exercise and not wanting to disturb my hosts, I decide to have a dip in a nearby bay. I admit
my mistake on my return. As the salty drips slide down my back, my host reveals the bay’s dark secret. He informs me the water is unclean with effluent centrifuging before sweeping back out to sea. The water droplets
pool as he continues. On New Year’s Day, an ‘I’m a good swimmer’ tourist was dragged outside the reef and drowned.

That night, as I lie awake, the dichotomy between swimming as sport and swimming as drowning prevention crystalises. The sea is no longer a playground but a force of nature to be treated with respect. Our swimmers may have lost friends and relatives in the tsunami or, through drowning in the many rivers, pools, ditches on the island. My humiliation is a fraction of that which the swimmers experience when initially taking to the water.

And thanks to my misadventure, the value of the project appreciates.
Christina’s teaching method deals sensitively with these cultural, historical and psychological factors. In a discreet setting, away from any male eyes, our female students are first taught how to float-and-breathe, then how to swim. Research indicates that floating and breathing should be the immediate
reaction to sudden unexpected immersion in water. Once floating on your back, you can catch your breath and call for help. I notice Christina’s swimmers rolling onto their backs to float if fatigued or struggling. When ready, they flip over to their front, coolly returning to
their swimming practice.

Thanks to the project, over 6,000 women have challenged the prevailing view of swimming as frivolous and have accepted its relevance to saving their lives. They have improved their drowning survival odds and overcome fears of immodesty and have acquired a whole lot of confidence and self-esteem building on the way. A smaller, yet significant number have freed themselves
from the poverty trap. One star pupil, Indu, has recently graduated as an attorney at law from the University of Colombo. Her application was strengthened by the hard work she put in to gaining her swim coach qualification, almost unheard of for a woman in Sri Lanka, alongside her proficient level of English.

Vinila and Indu have reached and exceeded all the passport milestones on their journey into water. The passport booklet records the 30 skill steps of a course to take a beginner to be a competent, safe swimmer. It’s a document
that Christina has developed over 40 years of honing her craft. On days one and two instruction takes places on a one-to-one basis.

Learning is fun, with exercises like shouting your name underwater and monkey walking, arms swinging like an orangutan, building
confidence. By step 30, Christina’s swim teachers slice gracefully through the water, perfectly balanced and breathing bilaterally, so their continuous motion is fluid. I think back to my learners, who equate splash with
speed, and how they would benefit from these techniques.

On the final day of the course, we celebrate the beginners’ achievements. Of the group, some have gained their ‘I can Survive One Minute Award’: able to swim 10 metres and float for one minute; others their ‘‘I can
Survive Two Minutes Award’: swim 25 metres and float for two minutes. The magic words ‘I can SWIM’ do not get used until the float last for 10 minutes and the distance is 100 metres. The session finishes with a game involving
spelling the first letter of a name in English using your arms and legs. Once dry, and, still laughing, we are warmed
up by a hot cup of sweet, milky Ceylon tea.

The relaxation, joy and sense of fortitude that comes from being in the water glows on our faces. We are sharing a worthwhile endeavour and know we are looking after ourselves
and one another. Christina remarks that the project likes its parties and I sense a playful side to her, despite the weight of responsibility
she shoulders for Sri Lanka’s women.

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