Swimming and sickling

4 years old x 4 metres deep

4 years old x 4 metres deep

I’ve been thinking about swimming. We’ve just spent a few days up the mid-north coast visiting my parents – which means going to the beach every day for a swim. It used to be twice a day for hours and hours, but adolescence seems to have given AM an allergy to exercise, and now when we stay at the coast it’s once a day for a quick surf and that’s it.

Just as an aside, my boy told me he doesn’t want to be called ActionMan in this blog. In just one short year it has become a misnomer anyway. So until I can think of something more catchy, (that he approves of) he’ll just be AM – which also happen to be two of his initials. Perhaps they could also stand in for AdrenalinMan – his idea of fun these days would be Parkour (if he could persaude some friends to do it with him), parachuting and wing-suiting.  Eeeeek! What’s wrong with good old soccer?

But back to swimmimg. AM truly was an ActionMan from a very early age. I love swimming myself and I’d take him to the pool or beach often when he was little. The picture shows him swimming in a 4 metre deep pool just a few days after his 4th birthday. From the age of about 7  he had surfing lessons every summer.

I’d love to have been able to do the same with DadaK’s children, but as more of them kept arriving on the scene, it became increasingly difficult to manage. Taking a bunch of non-swimmers to the pool without another adult handy is a recipe for disaster.  So none of them can swim. Every summer I hope to rectify this situation at least with the oldest, 50 Cedis, and every summer we don’t quite make it.

I did take him swimming in Ghana, but it was an expensive expedition to go to the pool so we didn’t do it often enough. In Kumasi the only pools we found were attached to hotels. The Kumasi Cultural Centre gave me a list of them, and we went by tro tro and taxi to two that were – kind of – close to where we lived in Asuoyeboah. We went to the Wadoma (off the Sunyani road) and Rexmar (Patasi) hotels.

The joy of burgers

The joy of burgers

I felt I couldn’t just take AM, but also had to take his cousim Owuraku, 50 Cedis and usually one of his other brothers. AM, pining for non-Ghanaian food, wouldn’t leave the premises without having eaten at the hotel restaurant, so everyone else would have to as well, and I rarely got out of it having spent under $60 – comparable to Australian prices. The picture at right shows 50 Cedis’ rapture at the prospect of the Rexmar’s hotel’s unique mini-burgers and chips. 

We managed to nearly drown Owuraku at the Rexmar pool, which has a very deep spot, but he and 50 Cedis both had a lot of fun at Wadoma, which is shallower, and one of the days we went they got to join in a riotous ball game with some young men who were there. (Who were quite drunk, so I had to keep a vigilant eye on my non-swimmers).

To be frank, 50 Cedis probably would have learned to swim years ago if he wasn’t such a panic merchant. AM hasn’t helped much in this regard; his sense of fun in the water is usually interpreted  as plain sabotage by non-swimmers. In the picture below you can see 50 Cedis enjoying a panic in about 1 metre of water. Perhaps Drama Queen is a better description. But with four siblings and non-swimming parents, the odds of him getting the aquatic attention he deserves have been slim.  Maybe this summer we’ll manage it.

I think swimming is such an important part of Australian culture the government should ditch the controversial citizenship test and just teach all new migrants swimming and water safety. I’m sure it would be more popular. Like barbecues, swimming is a part of our culture that most migrants embrace with enthusiasm – if not for themselves, at least for their children. We even have an Australian designed Burqini – “dynamic swimwear for today’s Muslim female”, just to make it accessible for everyone.

Even DadaK has expressed interest in swimming in the past. Not long after we met I took him to meet my parents, who were then living on the shores of a beautiful tidal lake on the south coast of NSW. I tried – unsuccessfully – to teach him to float on its shallow, sandy waters. In spite of his complete failure to float, it was fun – until the next day, which he spent moaning and writhing in bed, and I spent not wanting to believe that swimming had brought it on. This was my first encounter with a condition I’d only read about in high school biology text books, but neither of us knew it at the time: sickle cell disease.

Owuraku and 50 Cedis panicking at the shallow end.Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder in which lack of oxygen in the red blood cells – triggered by a range of things, including dehydration and getting chilled – causes them to ‘sickle’ in shape and break down and block blood vessels. The main symptom is incredible, unbearable  pain as the surrounding area is starved of oxygen. The damage ranges from heart attacks and strokes to permanent bone damage to stunting children’s growth.

It took us a few years to get a diagnosis on what DadaK spoke of as his ‘unmentionable’ because his mother had told him never to mention it or it might come on. When feeling daring, he’d call it his rheumatism. These days he’ll refer to it as sickle cell, and still suffers the consequences of a life time with the condition, although fortunately he hasn’t had a severe attack for many years because he’s found a medication that helps stave it off when he feels it starting.

So, I mentioned it was genetic, right? Depending on the combination of genes you get, you can have no symptoms and just be a carrier, or you can have extreme symptoms – worse than DadaK’s. You can only get symptoms – generally – if both parents have a gene for it. And guess what. Out of all the women available, DadaK married Obaapa, who carries a gene for sickle cell.

They have been incredibly lucky really. Out of their four children, so far only Abrantie has been diagnosed with the condition. 50 Cedis and G Ketewa are only carriers (as is AM), and no-one’s been brave enough to test Treasure’s blood, but so far she’s not showing signs of it. Abrantie’s got the same genetic variant as DadaK – bad, but not as bad as it might have been. Bad enough tho, to make swimming a bit of a challenge.

It was taking him to the beach when he was about 18 months old that alerted us all to the fact that he had sickle cell. I got a call from DadaK in the evening afterwards, wanting to know if he’d hurt his leg because he was complaining of pain. No, I said, but could it be sickle cell? It sounded like it. (By this time I was somewhat of an expert on it, having been through quite a few ‘crises’ as the pain episodes are called, and hospitalisations, with DadaK). Obaapa was firmly in denial, DadaK  wanted to be in denial  but couldn’t help admitting that I might be right. A few months later (after another swim) Abrantie had another crisis and sometime the following year or two, he was hospitalised with it and diagnosed. This time swimming had nothing to do with it, to my relief, but you can understand I’ve been pretty wary of taking him to the pool ever since.

Looking into it online I’ve found that people with sickle cell can swim, but it must be in warm water and they have to keep their fluids up – and in my experience, not get chilled. I turn into a monster of anxiety when I take Abrantie swiming: Is the water ok? Are you warm? Are you cold? Do you want a drink? Where’s the towel? Wrap up really well. Are you cold? You’d better get dressed. Oh my god who got your T-shirt wet!? Are you warm enough? Have a drink. 

It’s paid off in one respect, because he’s never had a crisis after going swimming with me, since those two early incidents – and he loves being in the water. But it’s another reason why no-one else in the family’s learned to swim. Sickle cell just complicates the picture. I find it very sad.

I did a quick look around the web for useful sites but decided to just link to two that are for kids, which I intend to show Abrantie. Check them out.




2 thoughts on “Swimming and sickling

  1. Sickle cell disease is one of those very interesting evolutionary “patches” that helps, but doesn’t get it quite right – if you just have one gene you’re more resistant to malaria, but if you get two, you’re in trouble. I’ve got my own genetic blood problem – my blood clots quicker than normal. Evolutionary good trait if expressed just a little bit, and you’re an active hunter-gatherer, and get wounded a lot. Bad trait in my case because I have a combination of blood clotting disorders which pushes it from “clotting quickly” to “clotting so quickly it clots too much”. Genes are funny.

    On a completely different note (I’m rambling here, I know), Aditya doesn’t know how to swim either, which bugs the California girl in me so much. I grew up next to the ocean, don’t remember learning to swim, was on my school’s swim team, etc, etc. I’ve tried teaching him, but he’s skinny, so he doesn’t float easily, and gets cold in the water quickly.

  2. Yes, sickle cell’s kind of weird like that. It’s not even clear to me how much it helps with malaria, tho I know the theory. The gene hasn’t stopped DadaK or AM getting malaria. And in fact I came across a news item about a Nigerian migrant family in the UK where sickle cell seems to *increase* the malaria complications: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/archives/filed%20newszines/newszine91/HelenLaolu-Balogun.html

    I wish you luck with getting Aditya swimming, I can understand why you want him to learn.

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