By Sitinga Kachipande

Swimming is not a sport in which you see many Africans or black faces. For many, this corroborates the belief that black people cannot swim. The stereotype is false but persistent. It has crossed the oceans and applied to both Africans and their descendants. It centres 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 this 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 professionals. 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. They were skilled watermen who had established navy fleets and African sailors were in high demand during the initial contact with Europe. In an era when 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 to avoid capture. Parents would often make up superstitions about the water being a site for ‘witchcraft’, ‘sea monsters’ or instill a fear of drowning in order to keep children from going near the ocean – and many of these superstitions were passed on. In some communities during this era, there were many instances of Africans escaping slave ships by swimming away to safety. It is estimated 80% of Africans who survived the slave trade and reached the United States, could swim. Enslaved Africans in the Americas were then banned from teaching their children how to swim.

Swimming Out of Poverty
Access to swimming pools and locations for swimming remains a key reason why Africans are not known swimmers. 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 into a lucrative professional career. Like in many sports, however, swimming athletes in Africa face challenges. They are often underpaid or not paid 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 coaches and swimming facilities. Furthermore, harmful superstitions that attack African people’s capability to swim affect investment into swimming. They also may discourage young aspiring swimmers, who may internalise these superstitions and actually believe that their ‘bones’ betray them or that it is culturally unacceptable. Unlike sports like basketball and soccer, the costs and accessibility associated with creating professional swimmers are more prohibitive. 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 medallist from the Global North, his Olympic achievements are uncommon for minorities because of income inequality based on colour in those countries. African descendants in the Americas arrived there as slaves. They have faced a similar social, legal, and political pattern 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.

Competitive swimming does not favour the poor
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 organised African Swimming Championships (ASC), tend to be the higher income countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Egypt and South Africa. In 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. – africaontheblog.org

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