Here’s a case in point. Fazlur and Aminur Rahman (no relation) both have public health doctorates from Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which specializes in injury prevention. Both 50-something men have an alphabet soup of advanced degrees on their business cards. But when I asked Aminur, the head of the International Drowning Research Centre, how he learned to swim, his colleague Fazlur laughed from across the office. “He doesn’t know how to swim!” Fazlur chortled. Slightly chagrined, Aminur explained that he grew up in Dhaka and had few chances to swim. (Fazlur knows how to swim.)
In the Dhaka park near the portable pool, I met four kids, including two girls wearing headscarves and a chubby six-year-old boy in a T-shirt that declared “I Can Swim,” who took CIPRB’s 12-session swim course in 2012. Tasmim Humaira, a thin 11-year-old, claimed learning to swim wasn’t too difficult. “If we have danger in our life we can swim,’” she declared.
CIPRB teaches an equal number of boys and girls to swim—an achievement facilitated by the surprising fact, in this Muslim country, that 60 percent of the program’s swim instructors are female (the organization has trained a total of 2,700 local swimming instructors according to international guidelines). In the water, these women wear shalwar kameez (loose-fitting tunics and trousers). “Our initial thought was that people would be resistant, but there was no objection from the community,” said Fazlur.
In a congested Dhaka neighborhood called Niketon, a group of children told me about their experience learning to swim with CIPRB last year. We sat near their school, which had a dirt courtyard with stubby patches of grass where boys played cricket. Another portable pool sat to one side, looking out of place in the modest surroundings. It was a hot, humid day and the pool’s blue water looked tantalizing behind a fence topped with barbed wire. Halima Sadia Tina, a 12-year-old girl with a moon-shaped face, told me floating was the most difficult skill for her to learn.
Their swimming instructor was Mustafazar Rahman, a third-year college student studying computer science in the Bangladeshi capital who teaches swimming part-time. He is from the village of Shirpur, about 100 miles from Dhaka, where his father taught him to swim when he was seven. Rahman remembers that there was another seven-year-old boy in his village who drowned. In the rush to save him, he had been pulled from the water and spun over an adult’s head to induce vomiting. CPR isn’t well-known in rural areas and rescuers often resort to superstitious practices instead, vainly pounding a victim’s stomach or putting rotten food in his or her mouth to induce vomiting. Rahman estimates that he has now taught 1,400 children to swim, including some from his village.
Back at the schoolyard in Niketon, one young student fondly remembered his swim lessons—and how they empowered him. “First time I was scared but after some time I became normal with the water,” 13-year-old Rezul Islam told me. “Now I can save myself from drowning and also I can save other children’s life.”