Four-hundred neon swim noodles smack down upon the surging water, nearly creating the experience of pyrotechnics. The cacophony of 200 voices adds to the festive atmosphere, as a single coach’s instructions barely pierce through the sound.
Ambitious early morning gym goers engaged in aqua fitness may not seem strange, but this gym is located in the Atlantic Ocean, and the majority of class members are Muslim women. It’s a society where women are rarely seen participating in sports. Here, men and women sneak in their aqua-gym exercise before 9 a.m—after which time temperatures will climb to 95 degrees Fahrenheit with near 100 percent humidity.
Welcome to Senegal, the coastal nation in West Africa known for its stable democracy, extensive hospitality, frenetic music, and expansive beaches—but also for maintaining its “traditional” gender roles.
“It is just not in our culture that women do much sport,” participant Mamadou Ndiaye tells GOOD. “Even if one time there was a woman in my karate class,” he says. One woman, one time.
This class bucks that trend.
“Before, there were not many women in the aqua course,” says Ndiaye, laughing, “but now they clearly dominate it.”
The first of its kind in Senegal (and most likely all of West Africa), the unisex course is transcending cultural and social norms about women and sport. It stands out in a country where it’s rare to see women participating in any sport, be it at the beach, outdoor gyms, soccer fields, or popular jogging routes along the coast.
Today, the women bob around in the ocean, right alongside the men, following the coach’s instructions. They raise their pool noodles above their heads and thwap them down full force onto the water. It’s a nonweight-bearing exercise that is also extremely fun, and the loud echoes are heard deep into the village.
Not all Senegalese women see the appeal of the course. Marie Ly lives just steps from Ngor’s beach, but does not participate in the aqua-fitness classes. “I don’t know how to swim,” the 40-year-old mother of two tells GOOD, “and I am too busy cooking or too tired from cleaning or taking care of the kids to do any sport.
The answer isn’t surprising, considering the traditional role of women in Senegal. General opinion is that an unfair burden of domestic work falls upon women, even in modern urban culture. Many have been left as heads of their household, with absentee husbands who left for work in Europe. The answer also isn’t surprising in a country where many people, like Ly, do not know how to swim.
“People come to the class to improve their health, to recover from illness, to alleviate pain,” Anne Marie, one of the aqua gym’s organizers, tells GOOD. “It is a safe place to be in the water.”
Ocean waves lap gently into the sandy cove at Ngor beach as the 60-plus-year-old organizer points out newcomers outfitted with bright orange life jackets in the waist-deep water. The noise of 200 participants echos in the cover, but the beach is otherwise silent. A few souls are in the water, and about 30 people—all of them men, of course—jog up the beach.
In Senegal, learning to swim is not a cultural norm. Fear of the water is exacerbated by the country having experienced maritime’s second worst nonmilitary disaster in history in 2002, when a ferry carrying more than 2,000 passengers capsized, leaving 64 survivors (only one of them a woman). The tragedy remains deeply rooted in collective memory. The Ngor “dolphin” aqua gym class is helping people overcome their ingrained fear of the water.
“It was the psychological boundary they needed to overcome (in learning to swim),” Ndiaye says, “not a physical one.”
A recent surge in membership has driven the roster to over 500 names—a far cry from the group’s beginning.
“We started as just a small group of friends two years ago,” Anne Marie says. “Then our founder, Ndeambé Samb, who was trained in Paris, thought we should start getting organized.”
On most mornings, there are between 100-200 participants. While Samb’s smartly designed course, complete with trainers and a weekly doctor visit, is aimed primarily at water safety, the benefits also are therapeutic.
“I started coming after I noticed pain in my joints after jogging,” says Ndiaye, who is a resident of Ngor and only needs to walk a few minutes to the beachfront. Others come from all over Dakar, Senegal’s capital, facing the drudgery of the rainy season to get to the course.
“I used to do a lot of sports, but when you reach a certain age … ,” he trails off. Ndiaye says most of the group members are over 60 years of age, like himself, with varied backgrounds. “There are lawyers, doctors, embassy staff, and, also, just regular village women,” explains the nearly retired agronomist.
Many participants comment that the physical benefits of doing a water sport are further enhanced by the healing properties of salt water. Others preach about the relaxation the course brings. Women in Senegal are known to be strong, tough, and prideful, so admitting to enjoying some relaxation is rare.
When bouncing, jogging, or running through the water, participants always keep a grip on their swim noodles, most of which are homemade. Bits of Styrofoam have been glued together and sewn into cloth, which is tied off the ends and resembles a gigantic hard candy.
While the noodles are not flotation devices, Samb explains that people feel good using them to hold onto. They also use them for balance during one-legged exercises and to help increase resistance. Try marching in the ocean while keeping a swim noodle under one foot. It’s not easy.
Beyond the physical requirements of the class and the constraints of domestic burden, it would be easy to use the Muslim religion as a key obstacle to keep women from participating, but most women say that isn’t so.
“Senegal has evolved, we as women have evolved, and we live a liberal Islam,” Anne Marie says. “We are free to do what we want, without our husbands.”
Still, a moment later, she casually mentions how before she arrived at the beach this morning (a half-hour commute), she had to “feed the animals, prepare breakfast for her husband, wash and clothe the children, and get them ready for school.” Otherwise, her husband would not like it that she goes to the aqua gym.
Women and men in the class have a mutual respect for one another. They exchange words of encouragement, both in the water and on dry land. They tease each other, and, occasionally, when a prankster wants to bonk someone with a swim noodle during class, women and men are equal targets. Yet, out of the water, inequality between the sexes persists as a cultural norm in Senegal. There is a clear gender division in household responsibilities, professional sports, and career paths. The gender division is most apparent at the mosque, where women are usually not allowed inside (they have a designated prayer area outside the mosque).
Women in Senegal are known to be strong, tough, and prideful, so admitting to enjoying some relaxation is rare.
During aqua fitness, however, women and men brush up against one another, the slight tide and uneasy footing of two hundred people making physical contact unavoidable. No one seems fazed by it.
“Once you are in the water, it is all about me, myself, and I,” Anne Marie says, “You think about your body and how you feel.”
“We may be 92 percent Muslims in this country, and there are maybe certain cultural and religious constraints to how we dress during the day, and also in the water, but each woman is free to wear what they want at aqua gym.”
And they do. Some women arrive in their regular clothes, braving the salt and sport in full polyester; others are outfitted with high-tech burkinis or wet suits; still others don sporty swimwear or bikinis. Anything goes. There is a uniform team shirt, but women work around that.
“When we first started, some women were wearing full jogging outfits into the water,” Anne Marie says.
Women have since shed such heavily layered clothing in the water, as well as the invisible cloak that hung over them as nonsporting members of society. Women shrug their shoulders at the notion of donning what they want and sloshing up against men during class—an idea most likely not so easily accepted by the rest of Senegal. It is almost as if the participants in aqua gym have unknowingly evolved in their thinking, assuming that the rest of society has advanced along with them.
Just how deeply the aquagym will affect cultural norms over time remains to be seen. For now, it seems aqua fitness is a model unisex sports course and one that Ndiaye thinks should be “in every village along the coast in Senegal.”
Indeed, a wave of Senegalese women thwapping neon swim noodles against the ocean may be enough to change the currents of tide and thought when it comes to women, sport, and equality.