“Have You Ever Drowned?” – by Wambui Gitahi

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Swimming is like a lifestyle for me. I would start and end most of my days with a swim. I would spend my weekends swimming for hours, but only after finishing my insane amounts of homework. It was not just a habit for me; it became a source of peace and comfort. With every stroke I learned, and every kick I made, I found happiness and strength to keep going.
Because of my love for the sport, I would not only do it recreationally but also competitively. I would represent my school in Nairobi Swimming Association (NASA) galas and Kenya Swimming Federation competitions. Being a competitive swimmer with numerous awards, I’ve learned that nobody likes to hear about the time I almost drowned, and instead, they are more interested in my achievements. However, I believe that I’ve learned more from my near-death experience in the ocean than I will ever learn while just swimming.

I remember the experience vividly, as though it happened a few minutes ago. For one perfect moment, I am harnessing the power of the waves in the ocean, almost bending them to my will, and propelling myself forward and faster. I am in sync with my whole body and mind; I am aware of the air going through my nose and out. I can smell the seaweed and taste the salty water; I am at peace. Then, in an instant, the massive waves are too strong. They overwhelm me and take back the control; I have to fight just to stay afloat. I feel fear creeping into my heart as I feel my senses fade away.

One wave after the other, they push me back and forth. What I usually do in similar situations is I try to touch the floor of the waterbody or of a swimming pool. I use my legs to get myself out “wet” dangers. I try to do this, but I cannot sense the floor anywhere near my leg. It was too deep. I begin to sink. I am losing hope. Then, just as I am about to reach the floor of the ocean, which is decorated with beautiful shells and lost and forgotten items, I felt hands surround me and pull me out of the water. I wondered who that person was, but I was too busy coughing out all the ocean I had engulfed. I was just happy to be out of the water.

Whenever I recount my near-death experience, I am usually asked why I still swim if that moment scared me so much. I have never really found a perfect answer and I usually just answer with “just ’cuz” or “I guess I love it.” However, upon further reflection, I realize that sometimes the things that have the ability to empower also have the potential to demand that power back. Sometimes, these things affect you on a small scale, like my swimming experience. You can feel strong, rejuvenated, and in control, but other times, the water may make you feel utterly helpless.
Another example of this dichotomy is language; it is a very powerful tool that highlights a different culture and portrays a different perspective. However, what most people do not realize is that language can and has been used to subjugate people. Recently, I have been reading articles by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer, and a sentence in his book that moved me was “the bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation.” This quote emphasizes that colonization arrived in two phases: first physical colonization, then spiritual colonization. In order to spiritually colonize African people’s minds, colonizers introduced English as the “superior” language. Hence, this power was used to kill my people’s spirits and thus, lose a part of ourselves.

When I worry about these two opposing sides, I am consoled by the wise words of Alan Paton when concluding his book Cry, The Beloved Country, “When the dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear.” There will always be something that scares me, but I can’t let that prohibit me from doing the things I love to do.
That is my answer; that is why I still love to swim despite experiencing the other, darker side of my passion, because I refuse to let the fear of bondage take control.