BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
The Silver Swimmers of Ngor
By Jane Labous
Producer: Joe Kent
Introduced by Kate Adie
Jane Labous takes a dip in the Atlantic waters off Senegal, which are buzzing with men, women and their flamboyant swimwear. She joins a group of silver swimmers for an early-morning exercise class...
Dakar, Senegal, 2019: EARLY morning, just after the call to prayer. The cockerels are still crowing, and the sun drifts up above the pinkish sea here at the beach in Ngor, Senegal, as a steady trickle of retirees armed with goggles and towels arrives on the sand. A salaam malekhum, they greet me with warm smiles; naga def, how are you? Are you coming in with us?
Quickly the trickle turns into a flood, and the beach is soon buzzing with men and women transforming into flamboyant swimwear. They are Les Dauphins Ngor, the Ngor dolphins, here to take their daily water aerobics class – or as it’s known here, aquagym. A fifty-something lady in a traditional boubou disappears and reappears wearing all-in-one orange leopard print with matching swim cap. Another sports top-to-toe hot pink lycra. They collect a noodle-shaped foam float from a pile on the sand and wade cheerfully into the sea.
“Aquagym has been a real emancipation for the women of the village,” says instructor and founder Yama Samba, 55, whom I find standing knee-high in water at the shoreline, adjusting a megaphone. The retired firefighter set up the free classes in 2012, wanting to encourage the elders of this close-knit Muslim community to exercise. Now aquagym is responsible for a significant cultural shift.
“To get a woman in the water before was almost impossible,’ explains Samba. ‘Village women used to wake up, clean and cook the lunch, then sit around. They did not go in the water in a swimming costume. But hup, we managed to convince them that if they wore appropriate dress, it’s allowed by our religion. And now everyone comes for the fresh air and the good effects of the sea water!”
After the pink of dawn, the sheltered Atlantic bay turns green blue, the air windless, the water warm as milk. There must be sixty or more people in as Samba yells through his megaphone: “Good morning everyone! Are we going to swim around the island today?!”
The bobbing crowd cheers and waves floats; a rainbow of pink and blue, yellow and green. Yama begins a military count, to which the retirees shout their reply en-masse - UN, un, DEUX, deux – and perform a series of rather elegant water exercises. They arc their floats above their heads, bending at the waist. They stretch their arms, floats pointed heavenwards. They execute vivacious jumping jacks and scissor jumps with accompanying whoops of glee. Against the brilliant blue African sky, the sea is alive with colour and laughter.
I wade in to join them, making a beeline for the lady in orange. Her name is Ya Ndeye and she’s 55. “I've been coming for two years,’ she tells me breathlessly between waist bends. “Every day between 7.45 and 9am. It’s wonderful for my health. I’m just a housewife, and this makes my life happier!”
Next to her is Coura, 51, who confides amid splashes that before, she couldn’t swim. “I was afraid of the water,” she admits. Taco Cissé, a nimble fifty-three in her ultramarine rash vest and neon goggles, is the women’s coach. “Everyone comes. It makes them feel great, inschallah.”
Then there’s 52 year-old Fatoumata Bari, resplendent in yellow. Her face in the sunshine sparkles with sea water, and so do her eyes. “Before I was ill, but now I’m in good health. I couldn’t swim so I nearly didn’t come, but Yama persuaded me. Sport gives you a free spirit, you feel young and happy all day.”
Changing diets and lifestyles here in Senegal mean diabetes and obesity are on the rise, says Samba. Aquagym is waking this generation up to the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. And many with disabilities or reduced mobility are attending too, because aquagym instructors will assist them in the water, and offer specialised exercises.
“Since coming here, I no longer walk with a stick, and I can drive,” enthuses Elimane Cissé, 55, who used to have arthritis before his doctor dispatched him to the beach. “This makes me relax, it’s fantastic.”
When I ask to take pictures, the silver swimmers pout and pirouette for the camera, laughing and splashing with their cronies. Evidently, water aerobics is as much a social event as a morning constitutional.
Mindoz, a strapping man of sixty-four who doesn’t look a day over forty, poses in flashing silver goggles. “I learnt to swim here, and I feel great. Everyone comments on how young I look! It must be the magic of the sea…”