As a child, I spent many summers visiting my grandparents in the Caribbean. I have fond memories of swimming in a vast, indigo blue sea, under the piercing, bright sun. I loved the power of waves, the feeling of buoyancy, the soft sand between my toes and the liberating sea breeze. In this sea, I fostered a deep love for all things water.
As a university student, I noticed an unfortunate trend in our community amongst those with children. These families stayed close to home, and many were non swimmers. Swimming is a life skill and this deeply concerned me. In my experience with community development and university campus work, encouraging parents to get involved positively impacts families. We initiated a Muslim Women’s Swim Program and personally invited the women and their kids.
On the first day, about sixty women and youngsters showed up. We arranged for all female lifeguards and an indoor pool. The setting was perfect. The dynamics were not so perfect. Not surprisingly, like in many big cities, ethnics pockets of segregation extended to our pool setting. The Somali women stood in one corner, the Malaysians, Arabs and Indo-Pakistani’s all separated into their respective corners of the pool. I concluded that the new swimming experience triggered this behavior.
On the flyer I mentioned “modest, female swimwear.” Many women came in long flowing ethnic garments. The lifeguards voiced extreme concern with excessive fabric and risk of drowning. I calmly explained that these women were new to the sport of swimming and being in a pool. I went around to the different corners and welcomed each participant, describing to them examples of safe and modest swimwear, advising them to cover from their chest to their knees. I also made sure that someone translated the message into their native tongue.
I wondered how we could teach these families to swim. I slipped into the deep end and swam laps with two other ladies. I hoped this would encourage the non swimmers. Surprisingly, after about 20 minutes a Malaysian mother stood in the shallow end teaching her child to float. Intrigued by this, a Somali joined and asked the mom to teach her as well. Slowly, very slowly women came out from their corners and started practicing floating and bobbing with the others.
I watched with delight as the women came together in the water. As the weeks passed, the ethnic barriers broke down. Social integration became a norm. Mothers and children enjoyed floating, bobbing, dunking, and dog paddling and of course exchanging recipes. I saw my beloved sport break down social barriers. Learning to swim fostered a sense of universal sisterhood in the swimming pool and in community life.
Five years later, I returned to my home town. A young child invited me to the swim program, where I saw many familiar faces, diving off the deep end and swimming like fish. Even more wonderful was seeing that many of the children had enrolled in public swim programs and some of them even earned their lifeguard qualifications. Reflecting on the notion of time, patience, and effort, I see depth in the words of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, “Teach your children to swim, shoot archery and ride a horse.” Athletics offer opportunities for physical, social and spiritual lessons.
Sharda Mohamed, a Canadian born mother of two, works part time as a physical therapist She holds a keen interest in fostering leadership, self esteem, and empathy in young children.