Why Africans Don’t Swim

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A Beach along the northern lake shore of Lake Malawi near the city of Mzuzu. Photo by Sitinga Kachipande

Swimming is not a sport in which you tend to see many Africans or black faces. For many, this corroborates the belief that black people cannot swim. The stereotype that black people cannot swim is false but persistent. It is a stereotype that has crossed the oceans and is applied to both Africans and their descendants. It centers largely on prejudiced theories that cite biological explanations (i.e. bone density, extra layer of muscle) or cultural explanations (i.e. ‘they just don’t like it’). In reality, Africans can swim. They do swim, but why they are not known to be swimmers is a reflection of an activity marred by a history of inequality in politics and economics.

The African continent is blessed with a plethora of rivers, lakes, and oceans. The Africans who live along these bodies of water may very well be some of the world’s strongest swimmers. However, many are hard-pressed to name any professional African swimming icons. A strong swimming culture was not sustained on the continent due to various social, economic and political factors. We need to examine how these factors influence the culture surrounding both recreational and professional swimming in order to understand the stereotype itself and why Africa has not produced an overabundance of competitive swimmers on the international stage.

Water, Water Everywhere, but not a Place to Swim  

We need to first examine recreational swimming history in order to understand why Africa is not turning many of its recreational swimmers in to professional ones. Historical events such as the enslavement of Africans prevented an established swimming culture to continue to develop. It is well documented that prior to the slave trade Africans living near water had a tradition of swimming and were excellent swimmers. Africans had a strong reputation for being the ‘best swimmers’ in the world. Africans were skilled watermen who had established navy fleets and African sailors were in high demand during initial contact with Europe. In an era where mass human trafficking through enslavement began, the sea represented danger. Africans avoided going to swim. Parents often told their children not to go near the water so that they would not be captured. Parents would often make up superstitions about the water being a site for ‘witchcraft’, ‘sea monsters’ or instill a fear in drowning in order to keep children from going near the ocean – and many of these superstitions were passed on. Some communities during this era, there were many instances of Africans escaping slave ships by swimming away to safety. It is estimated 80 percent of Africans who survived the slave trade and reached the United States, could swim. Enslaved Africans in the Americas were then banned from teaching there children how to swim.

Water is very important in African cultural beliefs, and is often an integral part of creation narratives. Traditional beliefs in water spirits may also play a role in discouraging some swimmers.Water spirits exist in traditional African religions that can embody both good and evil. Water spirits in particular were believed to exist and take the form of  snakes or mermaids or a combination of both. One spirit in particular is a mermaid often referred to as Mami Wata or Mamba Muntu who exists in many African traditional beliefs. She is a pan-African water deity that  also exists in the Americas (Latin-America, Caribbean, and African-American traditions). She is believed to follow swimmers and tempt them with materialistic or ‘capitalist’ ideals. She is a deity known to cause both negative and positive events in lives. Many people, continue to pay homage to this deity and  ‘mermaid sightings’ continue to be reported. The Shona in Zimbabwe associate rivers and pools with her. In 2012, the construction of a reservoir came to a halt in Zimbabwe because many of reports of her sighting. Black and White workers alike refused to continue to work near the water until a traditional rite was conducted. Although these beliefs are not wide-spread and are met with skepticism, such types of traditional beliefs continue to influence some people’s decision to interact with water. In South Africa, some individuals were explicitly not told to swim due to the presence of large ‘water snakes’ in the water.

Geographic proximity to water also plays a role because people need to have access to water where they can learn to swim.  Many African countries have vast coastlines, others have rivers that cross inland, however not everybody lives near the water. Transportation to the coastal regions is often costly or time consuming. There are plenty of situations where people live within driving distance of bodies of water, but have never seen it.

Africans that are fortunate to live near bodies of water are also sometimes confronted with water that is not conducive to swimming.  At times it is because of strong currents or tides that make swimming difficult and dangerous. In some of the calmer bodies of water, they are susceptible to parasites like bilharzia. Other times it is because the water is inhospitable, being inhabited by crocodiles and hippos. Therefore access to environments that are conducive to learning how to swim can be problematic.

It seems plausible that some of these challenges can be overcome by building free or fee based recreational public swimming pools. However, they are costly to build and may be expensive for the majority of African patrons. Furthermore, building community pools would not guarantee access in a world of income disparities.

Let them use Pools!

There is has been a history of exclusion based on economics and color that has influenced efforts to access the water. Finances have a bearing on one’s ability to swim for recreation – it costs time and money.  In places where there is no ready access to water, people have to rely on man-made places such as swimming pools which cost money to build and use. Black Africans have had restricted access to swimming pools that are both be privately or publicly owned. Private swimming pools in residential areas are owned by homeowners and access is determined by the home owner. The majority of home owners with pools are wealthy White expatriates. Many Black people cannot afford the high costs of building and maintaining an individually owned pool.

Most private pools are located in private sports and cultural clubs patronized by the wealthy. Furthermore, many of these exclusive private clubs with pools have membership that is disproportionately European. This means that the wealthy Black people do not have access to these facilities. Swimming pools can also be found at hotels or beach resorts where access is denied to people that are not patrons. Additionally, hotel resorts often deny public access to the beach in front of their hotel (which is usually located in the better swimming areas), which alienates people that live around the area from having access to the water. The majority of these patrons are either wealthy Black people or White people. pools can also be found at schools patronized by the wealthy. Therefore access remains exclusive to wealthy White and Black children of the elite.

Similarly, ‘public’ swimming pools often restricted access to select economic and racial groups. During the colonial era in particular (a period lasting until the 1960s for many countries) segregation in swimming was socially or legally sanctioned. This included defining who could use pools. Swimming pools in ‘public’ places were reserved for the European colonialists or settlers. In the case of Zimbabwe, pools were heavily segregated  by law up until the 1980s. In the case of apartheid and in South Africa signs reading ‘Whites Only’ in public swimming pools could be seen up until the early 1990s. Sport, for settler colonies became a part of the ‘myth’ of colonialism which aimed at creating heroes within settler communities in order to establish self-identity and for nation-building purposes. Sport was also a site where Black Athletes were discriminated against and weren’t allowed to represent their countries as equal citizens.  In the post-colonial era, many of the legal requirements have been removed at ‘public’ swimming pools, but social and economic factors continue to leave the majority of Black Africans with little access to them. The privately owned pools or schools that open their facilities to the public, charge a non-member fee that is too expensive for the majority of the nation.

There are also many hidden costs and opportunity costs related to swimming pools. Engaging in recreational activities means there is less time for work. Many Africans work (inside and outside the home) and cannot afford to spend extensive periods swimming even when they do have access to the water. The people that don’t live near water often cannot afford to pay to swim. Additionally, low income areas in Africa are less likely to have swimming pools or access to them.  Many of these areas have other dire needs that they would need to forgo if they build a community pool. Pools need to be cleaned, treated and maintained. The costs of maintaining a swimming pool are high and prohibitive for many African communities.

Swimming Out of Poverty

Access to swimming pools and locations for swimming remains a key reason why Africans are not known for swimming. One can argue that many of Africa’s strongest and talented swimmers probably live along the coastal lines or Africa’s many rivers and lakes. Economics and politics determine the level of access that these potential Olympians would have. Therefore a sport that requires practice, skill, and talent, time, and money prevents the participation of many. Participation and success in sports is often viewed as a way out of poverty. Some talented athletes aspire to turn this recreational activity in to a lucrative professional career.

Like in many sports, however, swimming athletes in Africa face challenges. They are often underpaid or not at all. They are also underfunded, and have to rely on government or public sector sponsors to survive and nurture their talent. They also need to find and pay for both a dedicated coach and swimming facilities. Furthermore, harmful superstitions that attack African people’s capability to swim affect investment in to swimming. They also may discourage young aspiring swimmers, who may internalize these superstition and actually believe that their ‘bones’ betray them or that it is culturally unacceptable. Unlike sports like basketball and soccer (football), the costs and accessibility associated with creating professional swimmers are more prohibitive. Simply speaking, competitive swimming does not favor the poor.  At the international level, athletes are faced with the politics of location in a global political economy that does not ensure a level playing field for the Global South in certain sports.  Swimmers like Micheal Phelps and Cullen Jones have been training for years in the top training facilities in the world. They also have the support of corporate sponsors and the time to dedicate to the sport. Although Cullen is a Black Olympic medalist from the Global North, his Olympic achievements are uncommon for minorities because of income inequality based on color in those countries. African descendants in Americas arrived their as slaves. They have faced a similar social, legal, and political patterns of economic discrimination in sports as Africans. The low numbers of Africans and their descendants in swimming is influenced by socio-political and economic inequality. For Black athletes in the Global South, the situation is further complicated by the economic situations in their home countries.

There are few incentives for Africans to become professional swimmers. Those with talent from all economic groups don’t get sufficient training, funding, or facilities. The likelihood of Africans ‘swimming their way out of poverty’ or competing on an international stage remains almost elusive for swimmers. Due to this situation, young athletes are often discouraged from becoming professional athletes – they are encouraged to ‘study’ rather than ‘swim’ to their way to economic security. The athletic environment affects the numbers of African athletes with potential that turn professional or remain competitive, from all economic groups.

Swimming Against the Wave of Stereotypes

Despite the low participation levels of professional swimmer at the international stage from Africa, the number of Africans swimming professionally is steadily increasing. This may be indicative of the increase in GDPs and income levels across the continent which lead to greater support for athletes. At the London 2012, we witnessed an increase in the number of Africans competing in swimming events. However, there were still fewer Africans in swimming related sports relative to other sports. Generally, the African countries that typically win prizes at CANA (Confédération Africaine de Natation)’s organized African Swimming Championships (ASC), tend to be the higher income countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Egypt and South Africa. During the past few years we have seen increasing participation from athletes from other countries like Malawi and Mauritius both at ASC and the Olympics. This is perhaps indicative of a continent that will produce more competitive players in swimming related sports that are often exclusive and determined by socio-economic status.

In order to understand the numbers of swimmers that come from the continent, we need to understand the environment surrounding recreational and professional swimming in Africa. Africans can and do swim. The fact that Africa has not produced many international level professional swimming icons is not a reflection of the lack of talented swimmers from the continent. Nor is it a reflection of a dislike of the activity or lingering continent-wide beliefs in sea monsters. It is also not because of physical capability, genetic make-up or disproportional appendages. It is a reflection of a historical pattern of exclusion wrapped up in politics and economics that could not sustain a swimming culture on the continent. Similar arguments can be made for many African descendant communities in the voluntary and involuntary Diasporas. Black Africans in particular could not develop a culture of swimming due to aforementioned historical, economic, social and political reasons. Many of these obstacles continue to influence participation in swimming related recreation and sport.

Sitinga is a scholar in Sociology and African Studies. Topics of interest include socio-economic development, nation-branding, tourism, image, identity, and the global political economy and of course, Africa!She has worked worked in non-profit, healthcare, development, and education organizations. She is on the board of the Malawi Washington Association and Southern African Community USA. She has lived in Malawi and South Africa and currently lives in the US but you can catch her online, blogging at rebrandafrica.org and dualcitizenshipmalawi.org.

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