Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My week of swimming in Dakar

Last week I was in Dakar, as you may have noticed from the photos. I was there for my secondary project - working with the Piscine Olympique and the Senegalese National Swim Team. For the first time ever, the African Swimming Championships took place in a West African country and Dakar played host to some of the best swimmers on the continent. The annual Dakar-Gorée, 5km swim was included at the end of the Championships as the final event, in which I was a participant.

I started the week with the informational meeting for all delegations. The meeting was bilingual - French and English and when the translator wasn’t getting confused - translating English to English and French to French, it went pretty smoothly. The most interesting part was when the head of the Ivorian delegation launched into a 10 minute speech he had apparently prepared for the occasion - he seemed like an eccentric type. For those of you who are counting, there were 17 countries from all over the continent represented - Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Angola, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius.

The next day, Monday, September 11th, the meet started. It was amazing to be around competitive swimming again! Warm-ups, heats, touch pads, it’s all wonderful. I was unsure what I would be doing to help until it was determined that the Senegalese woman who was to be the English announcer had not yet arrived and the meet was about to start. I jumped in and was doing ok, with the couple swim meets I’ve been to in my lifetime and taking directions from the meet director. The meet director was a man from Kenya, it probably helped me out that he was from an English-speaking country and didn’t speak any French, I ended up doing a lot of translation throughout the week as well. The announcing was going fairly well until I got to the name of a girl from Madagascar - the Malagasy are apparently notorious for long names. Tojohani Andrianmanjatoarimanana is her name, and no I’m not kidding. The first time her name came up, I have to admit that I panicked and only read her first name, but after a couple times, I figured that saying half of her last name is acceptable and became more comfortable with it.

During this first session, the meet director learned first hand how things are done here in Senegal, which is apparently different from how things run in Kenya. If you haven’t gotten the idea from my previous emails, things here run inefficiently, chronically late and that’s if they’re running at all. The microphones worked about half the time, the music for between heats was not played at the right time and was always the same, kinda bizarre song, and the all too common, too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome that seems to take over at many events here. The meet director was not impressed. On more than one occasion I heard him say "What is wrong with these people!?"

After announcing the first session I was told by a number of people that I needed to slow down so I made a mental note and tried to work on that later on. Then the head of the Angolan delegation came up to me and in addition to asking me to slow down, asked if there was anything I could do about my accent. Hmmm. I do a great imitation of my little sister, I may be able to pull off that thick upper mid-west accent, or even a couple words in the Philly accent but I doubt any of those would be MORE understandable to someone who speaks Portuguese. I told her I would slow down and that I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to do with my accent.
For the evening session, the Senegalese announcer was sure to show up on time so my new job was to hunt down the top finishers in each event, make sure they’re dressed in their team warm-ups and ready for awards. Well I guess the new announcer’s skills were not up to par because the meet director told me about half way through the session that I would be announcing the rest of the meet. The (Senegalese) French announcer was also replaced by a member of the Moroccan delegation, so we were sort of a team…a team that communicates in broken French and broken English that is.

Over the course of the week I got better, more enthusiastic, with my announcing, and every evening the Senegalese crowd did a great job supporting their swimmers. The most success by the Senegalese team was had by the star of their team - Malick Fall, who took Silver in the 100 Breaststroke and Bronze in the 50 Breaststroke. By the last day, the stands were more full than they had been all week and there was an authentic Senegalese drumming group in the stands. They played during warm-ups and even during the races, it really felt like the *African* Swimming Championships. South Africa ended up taking home the most medals, with Algeria and Tunisia rounding out the top three, Senegal finished 9th.

All week I also got to see the inner workings of swimming in Africa and a different side of Senegal swimming. CANA - Confédération Africain de Natation, is the governing body of African Swimming and the group that put on the meet. I met and got to know people who are a part of CANA and people in many delegations, including the President of FINA (Fédération International de Natation - the governing body of World Swimming) who happens to be Algerian. I was even invited to come announce at the next African Championships that will be held in 2 years in Cairo.

Thanks to the short sessions, I was able to get into the pool every day to do a little training for the event that would finish up the week, the Dakar-Gorée 5km ocean swim. My chances of placing well were diminished by the fact that many of the swimmers who participated in the Championships swam the open water race as well, as it was officially part of the meet (promoted heavily because Open Water is now an Olympic event that FINA would like to become ‘the Marathon of swimming’). The race started on a beach near a nice hotel east of downtown Dakar. When I got there, about an hour ahead of start time, I was greeted by 8 wonderful, supportive volunteers who helped me prepare for the race. The start was chaotic as with any open water start but I did worm my way into starting with the Championships swimmers and not with the rest of the riffraff (the hundreds of other people who signed up, including Peace Corps’ Doctor for the West Africa Region and the American Ambassador to Senegal). This seemed like a nice advantage until 15 seconds into the swim, we looked back and saw the riffraff coming right at us - they were supposed to wait 5 minutes or so. The swim itself went pretty smoothly, I hung with some swimmers from Zimbabwe for a while but was able to pull away about half way through. The most difficult thing was keeping track of where I was going because the buoys were not always visible with waves and whatnot. I had a little excitement when I swam into a plastic bag stew about 1km off shore and then again near the finish when I swam into a dead puffer fish and cut my finger - I actually screamed under water (out of surprise) when that happened. That’s when I sped up a little as I couldn’t remember if those things were poisonous so I thought I’d better hurry if my heart was going to stop in a matter of minutes - thankfully it didn’t. The finish was exciting, there were a whole bunch of cheering people (13 for me!), an inflatable archway, people handing out warm water and ice-cold Red Bull (one of the sponsors) to drink and some sort of sandwich I gave to the first kid that asked me for it. I finished 27th (around 10th for women) with a time of 1 hour and 25 minutes, ok for not really knowing where I was going most of the time. I hung out with friends and relaxed on the Island for the rest of the afternoon as a reward.

Aside from swimming, the week included staying and eating meals with the Peace Corps Country Director and his family. This isn’t really normal for volunteers but they live in the same neighborhood as the pool, and boy am I glad they do! A large, beautiful home complete with air-conditioning, a nice, fast computer, a western-style kitchen, I’m telling you, it was better than a hotel! Even though I have found that I now get stuffed up when I’m near air-conditioning, it was almost worth it to walk into a cool room after a hot day on the pool deck.
The food was delicious and on my birthday they treated me to steak quesadillas, refried beans and chocolate birthday cake.

All in all an unforgettable week.

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