30 Day Travel Series: Impromptu Swimming Lessons in Uganda

My hands were still shaking from the whole affair. I mean, I felt like I almost killed a kid in my first 24 hours in Uganda.

When I think back to the first day I was in Uganda, I cringe because there are so many things I did that day that, after spending two months there, I would never dream of doing.

To name two:
1 - Walk out in the street in my bathing suit.
2 - Invite a stranger off the street to come swimming with me.

I had just arrived in Uganda the night before. I was staying at my friend Melissa’s house, where there was a pool. Julian, Melissa, and our new friend Roland from Kampala were swimming. It was hot out.

I saw a some heads peeking over the wall. There were four or five of them. I could hear giggles as the kids pointed at us splashing around. I waved. Some waved back. Some ran off. After 30 minutes, all the heads were gone except one. The kid was about 12 or 14 years old. I asked Melissa if we could invite him in. She smiled. "Sure, if he can swim."

I hopped out of the pool and went to the gate in my bathing suit. I called the kid over. Everyone on the street stopped in their tracks to watch our conversation. He came over looking at the ground.

“How are you?” I asked. “I’m fine,” he said. “Do you know how to swim?” I asked him while trying to catch his eye. “Yes, very well,” he mumbled. I invited him in for a swim. He jumped at the invitation.

He walked right in and, without looking up, stripped down to his tight blue underwear, ran to the side of the pool and jumped in the deep end. He immediately began flailing. I watched him closely. He seemed like he was having issues, but maybe just hadn’t perfected his stroke. But as the seconds passed I got more worried. He was drowning.

Julian was near him. “Julian, SAVE HIM!” I shouted. Julian, trying to uphold some part of the man code and let the boy figure it out on his own, said, “I think he’s fine, I think it is just a different style.” We watched intensely for three seconds more, then Julian said, “Nope. He’s drowning,” and jumped into action.

Julian reached out and the kid launched himself on top of Julian’s head. Now gasping for air himself, Julian swam slowly towards the side of the pool. I was on the edge reaching my arm out. “Come on, Julian,” I said under my breath trying not to distract him. Julian’s face surfaced. He coughed and went back underwater, the boy still propped up in his head.

Julian bumped into the wall and I pulled the boy out. I looked Julian in the eyes: “WAY to go Julian.” I directed my attention to the boy. “I thought you knew how to swim?!” I asked, sort of annoyed. He was painfully shy, and at this point he was completely freaked out.

I walked him by the arm to the shallow end, instructing him to stay there. We got back in the pool. I waded in the shallow end and he followed me like a hawk, staring at the water. He then reached out and thrust his arms around my neck. I didn’t know what was going on. I grabbed his body to push him off me and I felt his heart beating 1,000 miles per minute. I realized he was totally panicked. I called Julian over to help. The two of us took him by the hands and walked with him in the water showing him how to cup the water with his hands. We then moved on to kicking exercises and blowing bubbles. He never said a word the whole time.

After a half hour, we told him it was time for him to go. He put his clothes back on and walked out of the gate. My hands were still shaking from the whole affair. I mean, I felt like I almost killed a kid in my first 24 hours in Uganda. It was also a million times more awkward than I ever imagined it could be - since the kid never said a word.

I started to freak out. “What if he thinks he can swim now and jumps in somewhere else and drowns? What if he jumps the fence and we find him in the pool flailing for his life later today? What if he is really embarrassed and feels horrible?”

Roland interrupted me. “That was the greatest adventure of his life, guaranteed.” I disagreed. “No it wasn’t. It was embarrassing and scary for him and he is probably curled up somewhere freaking out now.” Roland pointed his hand up to the sky and smiled.

I looked up. In a building that was gutted and under construction next door, I saw a group of kids that had climbed up there and were holding court about something. I looked closer and saw the boy, surrounded by five kids gazing up at him. He was acting out the strokes and showing the kids how he had cupped the water with his hands. You could see his smile ear to ear as he regaled them with his adventures.

I felt a little better seeing him up there smiling, but I decided I need to take things a little slower. Ugandan communication styles were so different - there were cultural norms that I was just blasting out of the water. People speak much quieter. Most Ugandan women stick to skirts that fall below the knee. So walking out on the road in my bikini, yelling an invitation to a kid off the street to come in for a swim - of course he’s going to say he can swim. Even if that meant drinking half the pool water, flailing around in the deep end and just hoping for rescue.

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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