It seems that Eritreans in general swim in order to cross the river or perhaps to show their prowess, and not as some kind of sport. Girls swimming in the countryside is unheard of.
Forget about the crawl, the backstroke, the breast-stroke, the butterfly or the sidestroke. Ours is (I don’t know if it is still used in the countryside) a style that only a harpooned shark knows how. The arms thrash the water in front and the legs beat it behind until it froths over. It is a style that is still waiting to be identified by the Olympic committee.
We have almost no lakes in Eritrea and few rivers. So leaving the coastal people aside who are experts at swimming, the majority of Eritreans are not great at swimming.
Every time I think about swimming, an amusing story that my granddad once told me comes to mind. About thirty years ago, there was a student by the name Tesfai who longed to go to America. Luckily, he found an American family who would sponsor him. So, it didn’t take him time to join his new family in the US.
However, while still in Asmara he used to correspond with the family, in particular with Anne, the eldest daughter of the family. She would ask him about life in Asmara and how they spent their weekends in Eritrea, whether they went elephant hunting or played catch-the-leopard’s-tail in the back yard.
But the most decisive question asked by Anne was: “Do you know how to swim?”
To which Tesfai responded with a resounding affirmative:
“I spend weekends in the town’s swimming pools with my parents. I swim in the Red Sea once in a while,” he bragged. He had to lie because he felt uneasy that while all Americans played baseball, partied, and drove to school, he should be deprived of the simplest of all luxuries that of swimming during weekends. Wasn’t he as much civilized as his ‘brothers and sisters’ across the ocean? What do they think he was? A chimpanzee?!
Frankly speaking, Tesfai who was a book warm had never so much as seeing a swimming pool in his entire existence. The nearest he could have come close to swimming was a cold bath in a tub in the backyard collected after heavy summer rains.
So it happened (as days and dogs come running without being called) that the day of his departure to America arrived. His family shed mixed tears of sorrow and joy as they saw him off at the Asmara International Airport.
It was, unfortunately, during a weekend that Tesfai arrived in America and joined his new American parents. Anne was there to welcome him.
“How was the trip, Tesfai?”
“It was fun.”
“You are lucky, you arrived on Saturday,” Anne said, “That’s when we usually go swimming.”
“No problem,” said Tesfai. “I will join you.”
To make a long story short, lunch and a light nap later, Tesfai was somehow astonished to find himself standing on top of a diving board in a swimming suit ready to hurl himself down into oblivion. The family was waiting for him to jump and come swimming to them on the other side of the swimming pool for a treat of sandwich and coke.
Tesfai trembled when he realized his predicament and asked God to spare him from everlasting humiliation in a strange land.
Finally, he squeezed his eyes shut, crossed himself and cast himself into the glassy water beneath as he murmured these words from the Gospel: “He shall give his angels charge and their hands they shall bear him up.”
Tesfai had a successful splashdown, but remained under water far longer than expected. Anne began to worry. A few seconds later, Tesfai’s head re-emerged only to disappear below water again. In short, Tesfai was bobbing up and down as a signal that he was going for good after the third bobbing. He was fighting for breath.
Anne thought that Tesfai was proudly displaying some traditional style of swimming common in his native land, but her instinct told her that there was something wrong down there and she decided to intervene. They had to drag Tesfai out of the water and lay him to rest on dry ground.
“Why Tesfai?” sighed Anne after a successful rescue operation. “You could have told us you couldn’t swim….and you would still be welcome in our house….”
“When I was a teenager, the first time I went to swim, it was in the outskirts of Asmara, a little lake built by the Italians.” would add my granddad’s friend, trying to share some of his experiences with water.
“I don’t know for some reason it went dry in winter and was filled to the brim during the rainy season. It was full of silt and was very dangerous to unwary swimmers or bathers. Our parents forbade us to go near it. Those who didn’t listen became its annual human sacrifices.”
In Eritrea’s tradition, water that comes from the sky in the form of rain is blessed. It helps crops to grow and provides grass for livestock. And the moment it touches the ground, it is expected to sink deep or flow and turn into a river. But if it refuses to go and forms a pound or a lake, it is seen with suspicion, for it is believed to attract demons and will not go away without taking human lives with it.
In most of our oral traditions, ponds and lakes are considered to be abode of evil spirits. Hence, swimming in these bodies of water is frowned upon unless it is a force majeure. Those who take the challenge do it mostly to save human lives.
Traditionally, peasants who must cross a river take hold of the tail of an ox or a cow for security. The moment you let go of the tail, you go all the way laughing to the Sudan, there to join with some of the minor rivers that unite with the Nile.
According to a popular belief, a person carried away by a flood keeps laughing all the way to his doom.
At present, however, with continuous flow of people to Gurgussum to swim and bathe, and the opening of a swimming in Asmara, notably Asmara palace and training given by certain associations, swimming is becoming a sports of sorts in Eritrea.
But the ponds and small lakes that appear during the rainy season in Eritrea are still claiming human lives, especially children. And the legend of lakes as abodes of demons will stay with us for some time to come.