Since then, Moustapha has trained a group of 12 local fishermen and firemen as lifeguards. They operate out of a rudimentary lifeguarding hut at Yoff, using two ancient windsurf boards as life-saving rafts and a few adapted fishing floats as buoys.
Jane Labous, a journalist, met the Senegalese lifeguards (known as maîtres naguers sauveteurs) by chance while working in West Africa last month.
Jane explains: “Moustapha and the other lifeguards struck me as so passionate about what they do – but it’s obvious they’re desperate for equipment and proper training. The amazing thing is that Dakar is a city that’s almost entirely surrounded by water, but the majority of the population here can’t swim.
“There’s scant support from local authorities – for example, although they’re now paid a state salary, the lifeguards aren’t even invited to meetings about how funds are allocated to buy their equipment. Plus wages are so low and there’s no infrastructure in place to teach people to swim or to train lifeguards properly. Moustapha and his team are doing as much as they can in difficult circumstances.
“I realised that because I’ve worked in Cornwall and have lots of contacts at the RNLI, I could do something real to help them. Moustapha was very keen to get expertise and some kind of training from English lifeguarding organisations, to learn how to make the system at Yoff more formal, before expanding it to other beaches.”
Jane contacted the RNLI on her return to England and was put in touch with Steve Wills, the new international development manager for the charity.
Mr Wills explained: “The RNLI is just stepping-up its international work, which includes launching a programme to help with exactly this kind of problem in developing countries around the world. When Jane got in touch, the Senegalese lifeguards seemed good potential candidates for our scheme. We obviously still have to go through the necessary process to assess their needs – but we do hope to get them involved.”
The new RNLI international development programme aims to help develop search and rescue-related organisations worldwide and reduce the estimated 1.2M drownings that occur around the world each year; around the same number of people die from malaria.
Mr Wills said: “We’re already liaising with a number of other countries, including Bangladesh, Cameroon and Brazil, to look at how we can help them save more lives. The RNLI won’t be setting up its own lifeboat stations or lifeguard units abroad, rather the charity will focus on helping other organisations to help themselves, by providing a range of services such as training, equipment, safety education and guidance on search and rescue frameworks and flood resilience.”
Moustapha’s team of lifeguards are aged between 25 and 40, mainly fishermen who work for six months as lifeguards, then go back to fishing during the ‘winter’, between October and March.
Some work voluntarily while others are drafted from Dakar’s fire service. All lifeguards have swimming, lifesaving and other qualifications. Those who are paid earn around CFA103,000 per month – equivalent to £103 per month, or £1,236 annual salary.
They say the number of drownings has greatly increased in Senegal since a greater number of people started going to the beach.
Jane explained: “Where once only fishing people knew the sea and went near the beach, now people come from the bush villages to live in Dakar – and in their leisure time they go to the beach. But they can’t swim, and they don’t understand the currents. That’s why the situation here is so bad.”
Jane also hopes to launch an appeal in 2012, asking UK surf and swimming clubs to donate equipment such as rescue boards, rescue and swimming floats, flippers, goggles, flags, binoculars, old wetsuits and loudspeakers.
Moustapha said: “Surf boards are the best way to save people with the strong currents here at Yoff. I saved a boy last week who was caught in the current. But the trouble is that we don’t have enough equipment – we need more boards, ideally – and flags to delineate the safe areas. Each lifeguard needs his own float and flippers – but we only have two pairs!
“Eventually we’d also like to give the local children swimming lessons. This would further prevent drownings here and around Dakar. But obviously we can’t do it without having swimming floats for them. The important thing is, that we don’t want money. We need kit and we also need expertise and training.”
Jane added: “When you know the people who will benefit from a project like this, you realise just how significant it really is. Even a few extra floats and a couple of boards would make a massive difference to how many lives they can save. If they could be given the skills to lead long-term, sustainable lifeguarding projects and swimming schemes, it would radically change things for this area of Dakar and other beaches around the city.
“These are clever, hardworking, passionate people with astonishing initiative, making a real difference to the local population, who only struggle because they don’t have the financial resources or administrative support they need.
“When you see the situation in West Africa, you realise to what extent we can use the extraordinary expertise, technology, resources and goodwill that we have in the UK to help communities in developing countries make a difference.”
First published in the Western Morning News, Saturday 26th November 2011
Jane will be returning to Dakar to do further research on beach management in Senegal and West Africa. If you would like to offer assistance with the project, please contact Jane Labous at firstname.lastname@example.org
(With many thanks to Yamar Niang from Origin Africa, my fearless driver and translator.)