ZANZIBAR – Working for human rights is not the exclusive domain of the 30 per cent of our world that is dry land. In the remote beach community of Nungwi, a handful of pioneers dedicate their lives to protecting life and fighting discrimination at sea.
Khamis and Juma Ame are just two of the many young men who have found a life’s purpose, a livelihood to support themselves and their families, and a means to positively impact their community and support human rights… through diving with self-contained underwater breathing apparatuses, better known as SCUBA.
Khamis, 31, is a father of two and a diving instructor at Scuba Doo, on Kendwa beach near Nungwi. He’s also a rescue diver, who participated in operation.
“It was very difficult. It was as after the Spice Isle ferry disaster last summer, among many other rescue missions.
“It was after midnight. We took a long time to look for them. The other boats gave up and went back, but we stayed all morning,” Khamis says.
They finally found a large group of survivors with their night-diving torchlights. “We saved so many people. But we found so many more dead ones. Finally, I ended up crying. It’s not a normal thing to see hundreds of people dying at the same time. Especially women and children,” he remembers, obviously struggling with the retelling. “There were other people collecting stuff, they don’t care about peoples’ lives. Collecting mattresses, televisions, they don’t care about the people.”
He came to the organization as a boat captain who didn’t know how to swim.
Founder Christian Moorhouse-Chilcott came to Zanzibar thirteen years ago, and founded Scuba Doo with intentions of positively affecting the local communities – but it took five years for anyone to work for him. “There’s a lot of boys that come into the tourism industry, and they basically get destroyed,” Moorhouse-Chilcott says. “They get sucked into becoming womanizers, or materialists, and you’ve got two sides to tourism.” He says nowadays the village elders routinely bring youth to him, to help them improve both the community and their own futures.
And there’s more work to be done above the surface.
The Panji project is a locally run NGO working with the local life guarding organizations, as well as Scuba Doo because of their rescue work. Their studies show that in even in the whole of Tanzania, more people die of drowning than malaria. They organize training, and determine who needs training. But Moorhouse-Chilcott says members of the local organization, and members of the community, often operate on traditional Muslim values. Many don’t think young women should, or need to learn how to swim.
Moorhouse-Chilcott was recently out on a rescue diving mission with one of his diving instructors, Hamisi, helping after a boating disaster. It made this issue of gender discrimination really hit home for him.
“Their boat was full of survivors that they’d picked up, and we were taking them to the other ferry,” he said. “
“There were a bunch of ladies floating on a mattress, and we just didn’t have room to take them. We went and took them to the boat, and came back, but by the time we came back they’d drowned, because they couldn’t swim. So when someone says ‘no, women don’t need to learn to swim’, it hurts even more. Because people like that didn’t need to die, if they even knew the basics.”
Moorhouse-Chilcott is optimistic, however, that these attitudes are beginning to change. He and his wife Tammy Holter have, largely through the training and empowerment of local community members, done their share to work against it as well. Moorhouse-Chilcott proudly reports training Muslim women to scuba dive, strapping the gear over their burkhas.
Four local Muslim clerics all refused to go on record. They uniformly expressed regret at the lost lives of their spiritual sisters, but remained adamant that upholding their religious beliefs and cultural traditions are paramount.
It’s the next generation that people like Moorhouse-Chilcott are pinning hopes to, like the young Juma Ame, 20. In Spring 2012 he didn’t know how to swim. By Autumn 2013 he completed his hundredth dive, well on the way to becoming an instructor, and working on becoming a rescue diver.
“I feel at peace down there,” says Ama. He’s already begun sharing his love of the ocean with his fellow community members.
“Now he can be the one to help train local people to swim, so that if there is a problem at sea people don’t lose their lives,” says Holter of Ama’s progress. Along the way she’s helped him become a hyperbaric chamber operator and a lifeguard instructor, spurred on by tragedies like the Spice Isle disaster.
Ama, Khamisi, Holter, Moorhouse-Chilcott and the rest of their organization say they will continue their efforts against any obstacles that may come, to support local development and ensure against future, preventable disasters.