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Swimming lessons: Lifeline for Ugandans
28 February 2007

Canadian volunteer, Bryony Smith teaches children living on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda how to swim, 13 December 2006.  (AP Photo/Emily Anderson)Canadian volunteer, Bryony Smith teaches children living on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda how to swim, 13 December 2006. (AP Photo/Emily Anderson)
Kampala, Uganda: When many people think of aid to Africa, they imagine sacks of grain for the starving or blankets for the homeless. But in Uganda, one charity is offering something different: swimming lessons.

"After AIDS and malaria, drowning is the biggest cause of death in our local communities here on the lake," says Patrick Tumwijukye, manager of a charity that is coordinating swimming lessons on Lake Bunyonyi, in the country's far west.

In the last five years alone, more than 1,000 residents have drowned in Uganda's lakes, though officials say the actual number is far higher — only a small fraction of drownings are reported to authorities.

The programme, run by the nonprofit Lake Bunyonyi Development Company, has 22 local and international volunteer swimming instructors providing lessons to children and villagers in Lake Bunyonyi, Africa's second-deepest lake. The charity has taught 2,200 Ugandans to swim since 2003.

Bryony Smith, 23, is a swimming instructor from Toronto, who has been volunteering at Bunyonyi for four months, told AP, "Word is spreading about the lessons and interest is growing. They're becoming really popular. I definitely think the lessons have saved lives."

"At first the ladies were resistant to (swimming) lessons because they didn't want to expose themselves and get wet, but they are changing their minds and now they enjoy swimming," Tumwijukye said. "We don't have anyone ready to compete in the Olympics yet, but we hope to do that in the future."

Landlocked Uganda's 10 major lakes are a lifeline for much of the population, providing fish, water and fertile ground for growing crops. The government Water Resources department estimates Uganda's fisheries earn the country some $150 million each year.

But poor public transportation links on Uganda's lakes means residents often rely on homemade boats and dugout canoes to fish and transport goods to markets. These makeshift vessels are often unstable or overloaded and frequently cause fatal accidents.

And in spite of their reliance on these waters, the majority of Uganda's 25 million people cannot swim.

"Even me, I am just now learning to swim," Simon Peter Okoshi, the marine police chief, told The Associated Press. "Swimming is not in the culture here, many people are hydrophobic."

Water Minister Maria Mutagamba welcomed the swimming lesson initiative and suggested it could be replicated on other lakes. "I think it's a good idea that so many people have acquired this important skill," she said.