Liberia is a coastal country with more than 350 miles of shoreline, dozens of rivers and thousands of streams and lagoons. Monrovia, its capital city, is one of the wettest cities in the world. The country has one of the largest maritime flag registries in the world. Yet, few Liberians know how to swim.
As the dry season gets into high gear, more and more people will be heading to various beaches and waterways to spend some downtime. The chances of someone drowning are great, but this can be prevented with the right policies. Matter of fact, which agency of government regulates beaches, lagoons, and swimming pools in the Republic? Of course, a sound system will be a great first step, but the biggest problem is cultural, or is it racial?
Many black people seem to fear water, even in the Caribbean that is surrounded by large bodies of water – which lie to the east and northeast. There are a lot of mythologies (i.e. mamie wata) in most ‘African’ cultures that contribute to the high rate of drowning among blacks; however, Liberia is not alone. This aqua-phobia can also be seen here in Nigeria, another coastal country with rich natural water systems, where I now live.
Researchers in Canada recently found that “black immigrants are four times more likely not to know how to swim than native-born Canadians.” Moreover, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says drowning rates among blacks aged 5–19 years are 5.5 times higher than those among whites in the same age range. In the state of Connecticut, two students from Ghana drowned in their high school pool last year, prompting a new state law. It requires all schools to have a trained, dedicated person — either a lifeguard or swim instructor — “to monitor the pool for students who may be struggling in the water.”
An earlier study by the CDC showed that nearly 60 percent of black children surveyed were unable to swim or felt uncomfortable in the deep end of a pool, compared to 31 percent of white children.
This attitude stems from cultural differences, experts believe. More white families spend recreation time at pools or beaches, and white parents make sure their children learn how to swim than black parents do.
Despite ingrained negative cultural beliefs about water, the Liberian government should come up with sound policies to protect people going to rivers and streams this season, like: All public beaches and pools should have trained lifeguards. Encourage people to swim with a companion. Never leave a child near water unattended. Do not trust a child’s life to another child. Make sure everyone learns to swim well. Work with the YMCA/YWCA and Red Cross to develop and offer swimming lessons. Teach children always to ask permission before going near water. Young children or inexperienced swimmers should wear life jackets.
But lifeguards are no guarantee of safety, what is needed is a comprehensive cultural shift and education about the health and recreational benefits of swimming. Only this, I am afraid, will reduce the elevated rate of unintentional drowning in Liberia.
Wynfred Russell lives in Kano, Nigeria. He can be reached at: [email protected]