Vanuatu, an archipelago northeast of Australia in the South Pacific, has a geography, culture and death rate shaped by water. The island nation’s residents frequently travel between the 83 islands to visit friends, attend schools and fish. But this comes with risks; residents have been prone to water-related accidents, notably death by drowning.

The fact may seem surprising (island dwellers don’t know how to swim?), but it makes some amount of sense; water is so completely integrated into Vanuatuan daily life that there are bound to be accidents. It’s the equivalent of car crashes in the United States. This does not mean, however, that the 40 percent of accidental deaths caused by drowning should be ignored, or even taken for the norm.

Instead, volunteers have answered the outcries of Vanuatuan businesses and communities who feel increased precaution is necessary. Heading the charge is Nancy Miyake, an American expatriate and swim instructor who has begun a three-month trial of a new swim course. And she’s not the only one speaking up.

Martin Wilke, a volunteer lifesaver, will spend the next 18 months as a Drowning Prevention and Education Officer in Vanuatu. His program, emphasizing government and administrative obligation to drowning prevention, is made possible by the Red Cross Australian Volunteer for International Development program. It is also supported by Surf Life Saving, a multifaceted Australian movement providing lifeguarding services.

In Vanuatu, until recently, there were no strategies to prevent drowning, few life preservers on boats and no organized swimming lessons. “There are children who have died,” Ms. Anis, a Vanuatuan mother of four, laments, “they’ve drowned because they aren’t able to swim.” Many instances of drowning, however, aren’t even reported. Anika Wright, a volunteer surf lifesaver in Vanuatu, believes that this is because “people see drowning and water-based deaths as black magic.”

To prevent deaths such as these, and to prevent superstition from interfering with safety, Miyake and other volunteer lifesavers will target children. They are the most vulnerable to water-related accidents and, Miyake hopes, will in adulthood become advocates for water safety and volunteer swim instructors themselves. The trial that is now being established may grow into a self-perpetuating system; this kind of system is what aid looks like at its finest.

Her lessons are administered in local languages and with local materials. Twice a week, children come to learn floating techniques, practice the basic strokes and instill confidence in each other. The water shouldn’t be anything to fear – if it were, Vanuatuan culture wouldn’t look like it does today. Swimming instruction is now taking place in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. Meanwhile, Martin will collaborate with the Vanuatu Surfing Association.

-Adam Kaminski

Sources: Surf Life Saving Australia, Australia Network News, BBC
Photo: International Surfing Association