The man using jerrycans to teach kids to swim in Senegal

Zalé (wearing a red T-shirt and with a whistle around his neck) has been teaching children in Saint-Louis, Senegal how to swim free of charge for the past 20 years. (Photo: Makhtar Ndiaye.)
Zalé (wearing a red T-shirt and with a whistle around his neck) has been teaching children in Saint-Louis, Senegal how to swim free of charge for the past 20 years. (Photo: Makhtar Ndiaye.)

For more than 20 years, Zalé has been teaching kids from the île Saint-Louis neighbourhood in the Senegalese town of Saint-Louis how to swim using old plastic jerrycans as buoyancy aids. His informal classes could save lives in this coastal city where many people don’t know how to swim and drownings are common. Two bloggers recently discovered Zalé’s initiative and are trying to get local authorities to provide more support so that the kids can learn to swim in the safest conditions possible.

With a whistle around his neck, Abdou Salam Diop – who goes by his nickname of Zalé – sets himself up three or four times a week near the Bacre Waly Gueye port in a neighbourhood in northern Saint-Louis for his favourite pastime: teaching local kids how to swim. The kids don’t have safety vests, buoyancy aids or even a proper pool to learn in – instead, the rookie swimmers jump off of the dock into the Senegal River with a plastic jerrycan tied around their waists to be used as an improvised float.

In late August, two bloggers, Thierno Dicko and Makhtar Ndiaye, met this informal swimming instructor and posted several photos and videos of his lessons on social media. They were impressed by his initiative, all the more important in this city surrounded by water, where drownings are common.

"Children jump off the port directly into water seven metres deep”

Bloggers Dicko and Ndiaye want to help Zalé give lessons in the safest conditions possible. So they took to social media to launch an appeal for materials, especially life jackets. They use the hashtag #desgiletspourzalé (which is French for “vests for Zalé”).

Dicko says the campaign has been a success.

For the past few years, I’ve been seeing Zalé with the children on the Bacre Waly Gueye port in Saint-Louis, but I never really paid attention to what he was actually doing.

Finally, a friend spoke to me about him and I went to meet him. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows him. They told me that he has been giving swimming lessons on the port for more than 20 years.

He uses old jerrycans that he ties to the children’s waists with a bit of twine to act as improvised flotation devices. What he’s doing is really beneficial for the community. Saint-Louis is surrounded by water and the shores aren’t protected by barriers. Most of the residents don’t know how to swim, including many of the fishermen.

There’s only one official swimming school in Saint-Louis. Even if it is “official”, its instructors also give lessons in the river. They don’t have a choice as the city doesn’t have a pool. So, for those living in northern Saint-Louis, Zalé is the only option. Over the years, he’s garnered a reputation as a great instructor.

"The National Maritime Agency gave us a dozen life jackets"

However, Zalé’s lessons aren’t without risk. He teaches the children by having them jump from the port into water that is at least seven metres deep, with very little protection. Ndiaye and I were surprised to find out that the city hasn’t done anything to regulate these lessons, even though they’ve been going on for years and there aren’t really other options for learning how to swim in Saint-Louis. So we started a campaign on social media to get the attention of the authorities and to find a solution so Zalé can give his lessons safely and with proper material.

A lot of people in Saint-Louis shared our posts and the National Maritime Agency [Editor’s note: L’Agence nationale des affaires maritimes, or ANAM] noticed. On September 9, shortly after we launched our campaign, some representatives from ANAM attended one of Zalé’s lessons and gave him a dozen life jackets.

ANAM has also promised to help ensure the students' safety during future swimming lessons. For example, they said they would assign a security officer to watch over the lessons. We’re going to follow up to make sure that they actually put this in place.

"The magic of #Facebook: Zalé got SAFETY VESTS! You remember Zalé, this #DomouNdar who has been teaching swimming for the past 20 years using empty jerrycans and who was looking for safety vests. Thanks to the National Maritime Agency [ANAM], he got a bunch of life jackets this afternoon as well as a [security officer] to monitor the children as well as additional material to come. Thanks to ANAM for having reacted [to our campaign.] Father Zalé, #Ndar wants champions now!"

"The city has never put in place a proper sports programme”

Ndiaye is already thinking big.

We want to help Zalé open an official swimming school. If it comes down to just one man single-handedly teaching dozens of children to swim over the years, it’s because the city has never put in place a proper sports programme.

It seems crazy to me that our city doesn’t have a pool. There are children here who spend all their time in the water, but they’ll never have a chance to compete in swimming events or become athletes because they can’t train in real pools. It’s a waste of talent.