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Primary school English and Social Science teacher Sanelisiwe Madukwana tells us the story of her heart-breaking loss and how learning survival swimming has helped her and her family heal.

When the Survival Swimming Centre was delivered to Noah-Christian Academy in Tombo, Port St Johns, in August this year, it was met with great excitement by the learners and community. But, for Sanelisiwe Madukwana, the idea of this portable body of water evoked mainly fear.

Saturday 11 January 2020 started out like any other weekend day. Sanelisiwe’s oldest son Khwezi (11) went down to play at the river with his friends. Khwezi, the oldest of four sons born to Sanelisiwe and her husband, was like most boys of his age. “He loved being outdoors but was careful around water,” Sanelisiwe says, “a little afraid of it actually. But the kids would fill up a bath and play in it to cool off, and they also loved going to the beach. My boys all just did normal boy things,” she smiles.

But that Saturday turned into the nightmare every parent dreads. Khwezi did not come home. “He would have turned 12 on 23 January,” Sanelisiwe says, “but we buried him on the 18th.”

Sanelisiwe was broken apart. “It was an unbearable loss for us all, me, his father, his younger brothers, Kwakhanya, Kuphelile and Kungawo, my mom, the entire family. He was such a lovely child, so full of life. He had so many friends – young people and old people. He had friends everywhere! His death was the most devastating pain you can think of. I’ve been suffering from headaches and panic attacks. You know you have to move on, but there are days you just can’t, but then you think of your other children.

“The fact that I lost my child to drowning was just too unreal for me. I kept asking myself, ‘Why would Khwezi go down to the river? He can’t swim. Not knowing exactly what happened delays your ability to accept what happened; it delays any kind of healing. So then we sat down with the boys to get the full story. Knowing the details does help the healing process. We found out that Khwezi was the one who begged his friends – his cousin was in the group – to go swimming with him at the Umngazi River. They finally relented even though they had first refused, because they too could not swim. When they got to the river, Khwezi just sat on the bank for a while watching his friends. Then he went in, slipped in at a dangerous spot and got into difficulty. His friends tried to help him but couldn’t; he was pulling them down too. He kept saying ‘sorry guys, sorry guys’ like he knew that he was going to die.”

When it was first suggested that the boys must be punished because they took Khwezi to the river, Sanelisiwe suggested they rather have counselling because they were completely traumatised by the event. “They had tried to rescue him, but they couldn’t. They tried their best; it was not their fault,” she says.

Survival Swimming Mom's story

Knowing exactly what happened to her son helped Sanelisiwe and her family. “It took a long time, but we were able to start to talk about it and tell the story. This has helped us heal slowly,” she says, adding that the support and love she and her family received from the community was incredible.

Then, one day the school principal told the staff that Noah-Christian Academy was going to receive a container swimming pool and that its purpose was to teach the learners survival swimming skills. Sanelisiwe remembers thinking, “How is this even possible? I tried to calm myself down. I attended one of *Val’s water safety lessons and I just sat crying at the back of the classroom. If I can’t handle that, how am I going to cope with this swimming pool being here all the time?”

Understandably, Sanelisiwe was afraid. Water was after all what took her beloved child away. “But,” she says, “I wanted to feel strong enough to be a part of the programme. I had to be strong. And I wanted to feel how it feels to be in the water and to feel okay.”

So far, Sanelisiwe has learnt two survival swimming skills involving holding your breath underwater and floating. “Without being able to float and not being able to hold your breath,” she pauses for a little while. “It gave me some understanding of what went wrong at the river.”

Sanelisiwe admits that the first lesson was tough. “I used to have nightmares, but I told myself I’m doing this, and I’m not going to stop. It’s not just about learning the skills – I am becoming more and more sure of myself in the water – doing this is helping me heal.”

Sanelisiwe is now sharing the benefits of the Survival Swimming programme with everyone she can and on every platform – Facebook, Whatsapp, etc. “I plead with parents to get their children to learn these skills, so they will know what to do in the water.” Sanelisiwe’s two older sons joined up for the holiday programme and are now also learning survival swimming skills. And, she adds, “Even my husband started the programme, and I know it was difficult for him. Men don’t like to talk about their feelings. But he came at last!

“I love this programme. I’m learning skills, I’m understanding and I’m healing,” Sanelisiwe says. “How I wish Khwezi was here so he could have learnt too. I know he would have wanted to. It’s too late for him, but for my other boys, it’s never too late. Thank you!”

*Valerie Barlow is NSRI’s drowning prevention education coordinator in the Eastern Cape region and a well-known person in the schools in the Port St Johns area.

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