My friend Julian says Haitians in general are better than (as in better equipped for survival)  “blancs” (whities) at everything except driving and swimming. Observation bears this out. Women and children walk miles with heavy loads of water , laundry, watermelon, you name it, balanced serenely on their heads, up steep trails in flip flops. Men dead lift 100 pound bags of cement without any knowledge of proper lifting technique. Everyone plays soccer in the hot sun and bare feet without the usual gallons of gator aid on the sideline. They can fabricate anything out of anything; they learn this as children who can make fabulous toys out of trash. I’d even say they are better equipped to drive over the terrible conditions of the roads here. A flat tire or an oil leak never stops them. Drivers pull over, fix the problem with spit and garbage, and roll on their way. But swimming, swimming is another story.

For one thing, Haitians are usually quite muscular. Over my many summers of teaching swimming I found that the very lean muscular boys were natural sinkers. And for another, many Haitians, with very good reason, are afraid of the sea. People here are all too familiar with the horrible  tragedies that occur when over loaded boats capsize. Panicked passengers left without life vests or rafts simply drown. These accidents happen out at sea to innocently duped people who have been promised a trip to the United States and hope for a better life and right here on La Gonave where unregulated ferries and fly boats cross the tricky waters  between here and the main island. And since there are no physical education programs in school, nor fitness or aquatic centers, children never learn to swim in any formal way. Apart from the occasional deep water diver who can hold his breath and sink like a stone for lobster and conch, Haitians either beat the water with flailing arms and legs or sit in the shallows to cool off. The great irony is that, surrounded by the tranquil caribbean sea, Haitians never learn to swim.

This past Saturday for six young teachers that fear of the sea vanished. I have a friend who has a school for children of the salin, the poorest part of Anse-a-Galets. Their class room is in a pavilion right on the beach. Last year a little boy wandered into the sea after a ball. Even though the water was shallow, he suddenly panicked when he realized he was in the water alone. Not one teacher knew how to swim. Fortunately, a grounds keeper did and walked into the sea to bring the boy back to shore. When the school director asked her teachers what they wanted for themselves this year, they said, “swimming lessons.” Last Friday she asked if I could help with this. Could I? I love to swim. It’s my favorite exercise. I made all my kids swim very young and anyone who visited me during the summer had to participate in our town’s swim team. I taught swimming all through college. It’s my favorite event in the summer Olympics. Esther Williams is my hero.

We began by holding hands and walking together into the water until it was neck deep. Everyone could touch bottom even though we were 20 or 30 yards from shore. Then we made a circle and just enjoyed the moment. They were laughing and relaxed. Next, still holding hands, everyone lifted one foot. Then the other. The melanj a pye (feet mixture) in the middle brought more laughs as they began to experience that weightless feeling in the water. It was an Esther Williams moment. Going around the circle each swimmer lifted his or her feet alone. From there we moved to back floating. The more buoyant women mastered this immediately. The guys were still sinking but they were not afraid.

One by one they progressed from back float to face float to moving through the water easily.  Again, the women were able to swim comfortably with faces in the water. The men, Paul and Junior, still sinking, were able to move more easily under water. I took one young woman out to slightly deeper water where she could not touch bottom and we began to tread, like riding a bicycle I told her. She took to it right away. I told her that if she were crossing on a boat and there was an accident, she could do this for a long time until another boat came to save her life. Her eyes brightened and I could see it suddenly made sense. Yes she said, I could save my life. M’ cap sove lavi’m. The trick is, I said, pa panik, don’t panic. We swam together back to shore.

The school director, Kelly, did a wonderful thing for her staff. Fear is a killer. She hoped that the day would just help them relax in the water, but it did so much more. They bonded as they worked cooperatively in the water. They lost their fear of the deep. They were astounded by what was beneath their feet–rocks, coral, sea urchins. And while the guys still have a ways to go (they all plan to practice every Saturday for the next few weeks) the ladies will be the envy of all their Haitian friends on beach days. I have no doubt that in the future, should any little student wander into the sea after a ball, there will be no fear or hesitation on the part of the teachers to sove lavi li, save his life.

Love to all and enjoy the end of summer with a swim. Affectionately, Nancy

The picture is at the beach school last night with awesome new swimmer Carol and her beautiful daughter.