Life lessons down by the banks

Although a big river divides the country in half, an alarming number of Gambians don’t know how to swim. Superstitions and traditional tales have even inspired fear about the river and the crocodiles that hide in its waters.

091114_The River  (12)

The River Gambia / This is the area we are not allowed to swim in.

I begged my family to take me to the waterfront when I first arrived in Sibanor, a request that visibly made my father nervous. He avoided my pleas to go swimming for days, saying that crocodiles were in the river near our village. He let out his trademark grunt when I retorted that sharks are in the ocean too but people still swim there. Finally, he relented and told me which part of the river was safe for swimming while banning me to go in any other areas. He about had a heart attack when I took his kids along with me and called me every hour to check on us.

Here is our quiet safe space away from the crocs.

Here is our quiet safe space away from the crocs.

Now that my family can see that the river won’t swallow up strangers of the village or cast bad spirits on girls, day trips to the river have become a regular weekend activity. My sisters and I pack cookies and juice and secretly gather our favorite neighborhood friends, careful to take the back bush roads to the river so too many people don’t follow us.

The road is exposed and after about 40 minutes of walking in the sun, we always arrive exhausted and ready to jump in. Although in their teens, the girls can’t really swim so they wade near the shore and wildly splash me as they chant: “Teach me to swim!” I hold their backs for balance as they stretch out their long, skinny legs in attempt to float. Screaming in a fit of laughter, they inevitably sink because they’re too scared to relax and let gravity do its trick.

My sister Hawa refusing to let go of the dock.

My sister Hawa refusing to let go of the dock.

100214_The River  (6)

My sister Jainaba trying to help our friend Isatou learn how to float.

100214_The River  (2)

Isatou and Jainaba. Outside my family, fifth-grader Isatou is one of my best friends in the village.

It’s more than just swimming lessons as the girls learn to ask “Why?” for the first time in their lives. Now they are more curious than ever: firing off questions about buoyancy, animal life and geography. As we often end the day sitting on the banks swapping stories about silly superstitions and our cultures, we find that we are so different yet somehow still so alike.

Girls Day!

Girls Day!

–JDF