Lessons from Zanzibar

Tanzania’s Zanzibar Island has been struggling with drowning over the years.

The figures are alarming. The island with a population of 1.3 million people registers up to 3 000 drowning deaths per year.

Panje Project, a non-governmental project on the island, decided to step forward to solve the problem.

The project launched a swimming for survival initiative for children aged between seven and 14.

“We conduct the aquatic survival programme in 15 sessions,” says Panje project programmes director Mwanaidi Abdulla.

Girls dressed in burkini practice swimming in Zanzibar

In five years, the project has seen over 8 000 children completing their swimming for survival training.

But the quest for anti-drowning drive was not without hitches. Abdulla recalls how parents in the predominantly Muslim island protested against offering swimming lessons to girls.

“They had a number of concerns, they were worried about the kind of swim wear the girls will use considering that Islam does not allow women to wear revealing clothing,” she says.

The other challenge was training boys and girls in the same place.

“Having listened to these concerns we engaged a local clothes designer to produce swim wear that covered the head and had full sleeves,” says Abdulla.

The project also recruited female swimming instructors and secured training beaches away from the most frequented areas.

Abdulla says they collaborated with education, religious and traditional authorities on how to address the concerns.

“We told the religious leaders that even in the Qur’an, we are told to teach our children three sports [discipline] namely, horse riding, swimming and archery. We also told them that beliefs that satan lives in the water is unfounded,” she says.

The half decade of advocacy has resulted in a rise in the number of girls who knew how to swim in the Panje’s project area from four percent to 56 percent.

“Some parents who once said knowledge in swimming puts children at risk of drowning, have started coming back to us requesting us to enroll their children,” she says.

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