An English Teacher On A Mission to Help Benin, West Africa Swim

Photo Courtesy: Dan Airth

By Dan Airth, Swimming World Contributor

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of living in Benin as an English teacher for 10 months. Benin is a small, French-speaking country next to Nigeria in West Africa. Cotonou, the capital city, is surrounded by water on three sides: the Atlantic Ocean, Lak Nokue and a small inlet that connects them. As a competitive swimmer growing up in California, I saw the potential for Cotonou to be a home for competitive swimming, but like most impoverished countries, this is not the case.

The local government made swimming a focus of its national development in 1982, when they opened the door to China to finance an Olympic training complex. The $10 million project included a 35,000 seat soccer stadium and was dubbed Stad de l’Amitie (Friendship Stadium). The aquatic facility is comprised of three pools: two 50-meter lap pools and a 5-meter deep pool with 10-meter diving platform. When finished, it was the first Olympic-sized pool in West Africa.

Today, it is still open to the public but there are hardly any funds to maintain it. Only one of the lap pools is open while the others sit half-full of rain water making the whole facility look derelict. Unfortunately, the esplanade around the “Stad” has also gone downhill and is mostly a place to loiter and engage in petty crime.
In the past 33 years, there have been several attempts to improve the swim facility but unfortunately this has only made it age less gracefully.

Painted on the convex wall of the building circling it are murals of animals, inspirational quotes, and nationalistic depictions of Beninise historical events. Walking in, the enormous pool deck seems to stretch for miles. At one time, the facility included a weight-training room, a massage room and classrooms along with showers, bathrooms, lockers and changing area. However, that was then, and this is now.

Today, most of these rooms are full of broken plastic chairs and beer crates. On the far side are concrete grandstands large enough to accommodate at least a couple thousand people. Locals can walk up to the press box at the top which provides a nice view of Cotonou. However, the main reason they come to the facility is to sit at the few plastic tables scattered around the pools and sip the local beer.

Swim-Complex-west-africa

Photo Courtesy: Dan Airth

Living and teaching nearby, I took the opportunity to swim at the Stad about twice a week. The first time I swam there, I couldn’t believe that such a huge swim facility was empty. Although the water in the pool didn’t look very clear, I was undaunted. As I walked out onto the pool deck, the locals looked at me suspiciously behind their beers. By the time I jumped in and finished my warm-up, they had left their tables and were standing alongside the pool shooting video of me with their cell phones. They asked me a million questions and were amazed that I could keep my body afloat. I explained that I was from California and that I, along with most of my friends, had been taught how to swim as children. Finally, they always finished with one question, “Can you teach me how to swim?”

The head lifeguard/swim instructor at the pool is a tall, muscular, shaven-headed man in his 40s who can be found all day, everyday sitting and talking with other locals and staring at the vacant pool. He is friendly but has a cynical sense of humor and laughs when I call him “Big Man.” He has seen the rise and fall of the facility and told me in his broken English that the government doesn’t provide any financial support for it. In fact, he said that the pool admission (about $3 dollars) is the only money available to pay the staff and provide maintenance. He promised me that there was some chlorine in the pool, and as proof showed me the empty, plastic jugs sitting in a pile in the locker room. I also often caught him in the pool with a portable pool vacuum and a couple of scrub brushes.

The Big Man acted as a father figure for two young apprentices. In Benin, unpaid apprenticeships are common because there are so many youth with nothing to do. One time I invited the younger of the two to swim a few laps with me. At the end of the first lap, he jumped out. In the locker room I asked him why he didn’t keep swimming and he said he was sorry, but he didn’t have the energy to swim because he hadn’t eaten in two days. The other apprentice was a bit older and always wore some sort of credential around his neck. He spoke Spanish which is not surprising since many West Africans are transient and move around from country to country. One day, I opened the door to the locker room and it bumped into him lying on the cold concrete floor on a bunch of wadded towels. He was trying to sleep but kept making groaning noises. I asked if he was alright and he said he was sick. “Va a tu casa,” I told him to go home. That’s when he looked at me with his toothy grin and said “Esta es mi casa.” He lived at the pool and was comfortably in bed.

I think that the most Beninise were jealous of my ability to swim. This isn’t surprising as not only did it show that I, as a foreigner, could do something they couldn’t, but that I had the opportunity to learn. In a country where most people have to work 12-hour days in order to survive, there is not much time for recreation.

Singing in church on Sundays is their main form of recreation and the church services are long; some people just stay all day. Other than that, soccer is the national sport and you see youth playing soccer anywhere there’s space. I have seen people jog, but unfortunately, not many people view it as a recreation. Finding a place to exercise is difficult anyways, as Cotonou is tightly-packed and every open space is quickly filled with new transplants from the countryside. There are a few, small public parks, but the only place to really get a breath of fresh air is the beach. The aquatic facility was a great idea but it wasn’t maintained, and that is the story of most of the public-works projects in Benin.

swim-complex-africa

Photo Courtesy: Dan Airth

I found there are many reasons why most Beninise do not swim. Believe it or not, there is still a strong stigma that Africans can’t swim. Upon discussing this misconception with a co-worker, I was amazed when he said that Africans had a different body composition than “yovos” (the local term for white people) making it more difficult for them to float! I showed him pictures of Cullen Jones and explained that some of the best young swimmers in the United States were of African descent. However, he still gave me doubtful looks. Further, many young Africans have a real fear of the ocean. Almost every one of my students knew someone who drowned in the ocean off of Cotonou. Once I organized a volleyball game for my classes down at the local beach and when I took off my shirt and shoes and headed to the water, everyone tried to stop me. However, once my students saw me body surfing their worried looks turned to smiles and laughing. The drowning rates in West Africa are epidemic, according to the WHO Mortality Database there were 750,000 accidental drownings in 2012.

I met many locals at the pool but one girl stands out in my mind. She served beer to the pool-side loungers. I told her she was lucky because she must go swimming all the time. I was heart-broken when she told me she didn’t have the money to buy a swimsuit. After buying her a swimsuit at the local second-hand clothes market, I saw her jump in the pool for the first time. I can’t imagine the joy she felt just being able to enjoy the pool where she worked every day. Another girl had the courage to actually ask me how to swim, and I spent about an hour teaching her how to flutter kick across the pool on a half-full inner tube. Occasionally, I invited a few of my students down to the and paid their admission. As they jumped around in the shallow end, I realized they had probably only been in a pool a few times in their lives.

Now that I am back in California, I hope to give something back to the people that gave so much to me. I am creating a non-profit, Help Benin Swim, to not only buy swimsuits and goggles for my students, but also to teach these young people how to swim. My former school, Centre de Recherche d’ Etude et de Creativite, www.crec-sj.org and contacts at the U.S. Embassy in Cotonou, will ensure that this program is implemented. We plan to recruit local swim instructors who usually only cater to the few elite.

The pool is there, all I want to do is provide the means for the average Beninise to learn to swim. Someone came up with the idea over 30 years ago to build an Olympic swim facility; I want to follow-through to make sure their dream remains alive.

To donate visit Help Benin Swim’s GoFundMe page!

4 comments

  1. avatar

    I know Dan through our Teaching Fellowship and can attest to his passion for both education and swimming. Great article which highlights some of the positive effects taking place outside of the classroom!

    • avatar
      Laurent Akpo

      Great comment on the situation about swimming pools at the stade. I worked as a journalist for a radio station located at the stade for 8 years and I know what Dan is talking about quite well. Sad, but that is the reality…

  2. avatar

    Hi Niko! I am envious of your tan huhhuu and wish I could take a vacation, would really really love that. by the way how would you rate the place you went to?

  3. avatar

    Hi, all the time i used to check webpage posts here in the early hours in the morning,