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Finding your place in the water

As Black History Month comes to a close, the Chair of the Black Swimming Association shares the results of their #OurSwimStory research on water safety and education among Black and Asian communities, with recommendations to ensure they enjoy being in, on, and around water.

31st October 2023

by Danielle Obe
Chair, Black Swimming Association

Around midnight on Saturday, 24 April 2021, 20-year-old Folajimi ‘Jimi’ Olubunmi-Adewole was walking home from work. He was crossing London Bridge with his best friend, Bernard Kosia, when they heard a woman crying for help.

The cries were coming from below. The woman had fallen into the River Thames.

Jimi was adamant about what should happen next. He told Bernard to stay on land because he didn’t know how to swim. As for Jimi, he decided to jump in to try and save her.

A black woman wearing a swimming cap looks ahead while in the water of an indoors swimming pool.

A post-mortem examination later found that Jimi had died as a result of drowning.

Jimi’s life was tragically lost. A life lost far too soon. A loss that makes our work at the Black Swimming Association (BSA) more vital than ever.

The BSA was born in 2020 to act as a bridge between the aquatic sector and disenfranchised and marginalised groups, including those of Black British heritage.

According to Sport England’s Active Lives Survey from that year, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children did not participate in swimming activities regularly, compared to 89% of White British adults and 71% of White British children.

At the BSA, we work to ensure that African, Caribbean and Asian communities across the country have equitable access to vital water safety and drowning prevention education.

This includes understanding what to do in an emergency, as well as the potentially life-saving benefits of being able to swim.

Moreover, while the general public is largely aware of the benefits of engaging with aquatic activities (such as rowing, sailing and canoeing), the reality is that not everybody has access to them.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The BSA was born in 2020 to act as a bridge between the aquatic sector and disenfranchised and marginalised groups, including those of Black British heritage.

The BSA is the commissioning body of the pioneering research project #OurSwimStory, which investigated the attitudes towards, and the experiences of, water safety and aquatic activity among communities of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage in the UK.

This research was conducted in partnership with AKD Solutions (an organisational change consultancy) and provided a series of insightful and eye-opening findings, such as 48% of survey respondents weren’t aware of how to stay safe in water, 44% said they had a fear of water, and 33% of Black survey respondents indicated that hair was a barrier to engaging in aquatic activity, making hair the most commonly selected barrier within this group.

In addition, the cost of aquatic activity was highlighted as a barrier to engagement, and with the current cost of living crisis (and the associated reduction in disposable income) this barrier is expected to have an increasing impact on participation.

Moreover, some of the participants didn’t perceive swimming and aquatic activity as being for them, rather they associated aquatic activity with white and middle-class populations.

But, there is a positive.

Based on the barriers identified within the #OurSwimStory research, eleven recommendations were formulated, with the aim of increasing water safety awareness and aquatic participation.

These recommendations were reviewed by a panel of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion professionals, and include the following:

  • Use a replicable inclusivity framework to understand local communities.
  • Increase access to water-safety knowledge and skills sessions for ethnically diverse communities.
  • Recruit and train an ethnically diverse workforce.

We hope that the aquatic sector (including governing bodies, leisure operators and policy makers) will collaborate with the BSA in order to implement these recommendations and encourage more people to find their place in the water on their own terms.

Our goal is for everybody to be able to enjoy being in, on and around the water, and to do so in a way that’s safe and fun.

We aim to build trust within disenfranchised communities and improve access to the endless benefits and opportunities that the ever-changing aquatic sector has to offer.

We do this through providing life-saving education.

People tend to know that you should call 999 in an emergency. However, it’s less commonly known that if you see someone in trouble in the water you should ask for the coastguard if you’re by the sea or the fire brigade if you’re inland.

Bernard Kosia said that his best friend, Jimi, was a confident swimmer.

However, there is evidence that around half of those who die from accidental drowning are deemed to be swimmers, revealing that being able to swim is not sufficient to be safe in, on and around the water.

Moreover, 60% of accidental drownings happen inland - in places like rivers, reservoirs, lakes and quarries - and of those who drown, more than 80% are men.

In addition, recent evidence from the National Child Mortality Database reveals that the risk of drowning is higher among children and young people living in England’s most deprived neighbourhoods, as well as among children and young people of Black or Black British heritage.

As a young Black man from south-east London, we don’t know what kind of water safety education Jimi was exposed to, but what we do know is that education can save lives.

This work goes beyond Black History Month. It’s our every day.

We work for everybody to enjoy the water, to thrive and to reap the benefits.

We work to improve access to employment opportunities within the aquatic sector.

But mostly, we work so that tragic deaths, like Jimi’s, don’t happen again.

Anyone can drown. No one should.

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