The past few days were an interesting departure from my everyday routine. It was as if the world of the NGO was quickly pulled out from under me and replaced with a pool. As I mentioned in my previous post, I the swim club I train with hosted an international completion from July 2-5 and I was lucky enough to be granted furlough long enough to participate. Despite the fact that the competition took place during the work week, my boss and the rest of the FRA Staff were overwhelmingly supportive of my aquatic endeavours. In fact, the entire Secretariat Staff came to show their support at the pool on Thursday! As such, I over the past 4 days I competed in 8 events, 2 relays, swam a total of 18 races, set a national record in the Men’s 200m Freestyle Relay, got 3 stories in the national newspaper, 2 on national television, and met a head of state – not your typical white boy goes to Africa experience.
Looking back on the competition I realize just how atypical my time at the pool was. My experiences at swim meets in Canada are usually characterized by uniformity and mediocrity. I am a (below) average height white male with thick brown hair so I blend into the crowd seamlessly. I also wear the exact same clothing and swim wear as every other athlete on the pool deck which only adds to my chameleon-like life as a Canadian swimmer. As far as my athletic ability goes: meh. I’ve been lucky enough to make a few provincial teams and swim on Dal Varsity, but on the national stage I am hardly a blip on the radar screen. Depending on the size of the competition I will usually make an “A final” and if I am having a good meet I might see the podium once or twice – still, far away from being a star in my sport. At best I am chunk of ice floating through outer space.
In Canada I am the rule. I am your median white guy who can easily be mistaken for any other person with a cap and goggles – not the fastest guy in the water, not necessarily the slowest either. In fact, my own mother is seldom able to distinguish me from the 7 other swimmers in a given race. And that’s not because she doesn’t love me!
In Uganda, I am the exception. And after a life of uniformity and mediocrity, being the exception is a little bit jarring. My experiences at the meet in Kampala were the polar opposite to what Canadian swimming has conditioned me to expect. I went from being (below) average height to one of the tallest competitors on deck. I was also by far the hairiest. A few kids even made a habit of grabing my leg hair while I was sat in the marshalling area. They were amazed/terrified by the jungle of leg hair that I accumulated over my 21 year tenure as a white male of Eastern European descent. More, I was the only white guy registered to compete in the meet. If you’ve ever been to a Canadian swim meet you will appreciate how novel a feeling being the only white person in the pool is.
When I walked on the pool deck it was as if someone waived their wand and turned me into a tall, white, hairy freak. Instead of blending in I stuck out like a sore thumb, effortlessly capturing the attention of every passerby. Children stared, babies cried, teenagers giggled. My entire presence was a spectacle. Looks aside, the biggest thing that separated me from the crowd was what I did in the pool.
The second I dove in the water, not only was I a tall, hairy freak – I was a comparatively fast tall, hairy freak. While I might be a mediocre swimmer in Canada, in East Africa my relative ability to move through the water was exaggerated 10 fold. Like I said before, swimming in East Africa is still a new sport, but growing rapidly. Because the sport is still growing, my mediocrity in the water was seen as something far more exceptional that it truly was. Consequently, after each race (no matter how objectively slow my times were) I was swarmed by: news reporters, television cameras, children thrusting pens and paper into my hands for autographs, high fives from generals of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, smiles, and waves. Swimmers would approach me throughout the competition and shyly ask how many times I went to the Olympics; parents and coaches would ask me to give their swimmers pep talks; even the maintenance and security staff at the pool seemed to be captivated by my ability to move through the water relatively quickly. Let me tell you, there is nothing weirder than a man in a military uniform holding a giant sub-automatic machine gun asking you for an autograph at the yernal. By the end of the competition my relatively fast performances in the pool had apparently gained me nickname “Nemo” among the younger athletes. Better than muzungu I guess.
I have to say, even though my celebrity status was not deserved, it did allow me some pretty darn cool experiences. For instance, after my team and I set the national record in the 200m Freestyle Relay I was pulled aside and introduced to the Queen of Buganda and her posy. They all wore sun glasses and were in the midst of eating KFC and pizza. All heads of state are the same. The Princess is swims with me in Kampala so like any good swim mom the Queen wanted to watch her daughter compete.
I approached the Queen and was met with handshakes, warm smiles and conversation. To my surprise she and her royal posy already knew who I was which made introductions far less nerve-wracking but infinitely more surreal. We briefly discussed swimming, university, and life in Uganda before I was called away for medal presentations. I bowed, turned around and mouthed ‘holy tits!’ as I walked away. What a life.
The atypical nature of the competition was exacerbated by the attendees of the event. In addition to the royal family, the stands were also filled with high ranking military officials (including a general), the owner of Uganda’s largest telecommunications company, and tens of other Ugandan elite. Yep, yet another “holy crap” kind of experience.
It is funny: when Westerners travel to the African continent they typically bring a great deal of power and privilege with them. The general rule is that the Westerner is comparatively rich and the non-Westerner is comparatively poor. Sadly, that rule tends to carry a great deal of truth in a “low income” country like Uganda. I am not saying that all Ugandans are poor and all Westerners are rich; rather that Uganda’s GDP/capita is well under US $1000, meaning that it sees poverty to a greater degree than many “high income” countries. However, once again the atypical nature of the swim meet made me the exception to the rule. As a middle-class Canadian I am relatively wealthy compared to most people I interact with in Uganda – at the swim meet, on the other hand, I was the poor one.
Even still, because IDS ruins everything I cannot help but look at the swim meet in terms of power and privilege. Unfortunately it was not my inherent ability to swim fast that allowed me access to Uganda’s places, spaces, and faces of power – it was privilege. Had I not grown up in a country that promoted sports through tax credits and government subsidies I would not have started swimming in the first place. If my parents did not have enough disposable income to keep me in swimming I would not have become good enough to make a varsity team. Had my university not been able to hire a highly skilled group of coaches to train me then it is likely that I would not be half the athlete I am today.
When other competitors asked me what I did to become such a fast swimmer, I usually gave them the dishonest answer: “Well, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but stick with it and you will be far faster than me one day”. And the dishonest answer usually sufficed; however, now I realize that it was a deeply harmful answer to give. The fact of the matter is that I had unprecedented access to training facilities, coaches, and equipment. These things in concert enabled me to become a skilled athlete, not sheer work ethic. Sure I worked hard to get where I am, but privilege was a far more crucial component to my success as a swimmer than hard work or dedication.
It is easy to tell someone that the path to success is paved with hard work and dedication. The American Dream; if you believe it, than you can achieve it. Unfortunately the American Dream is just that, a dream and nothing more. If we peal back the pavement of the road to success we see that the soil is made out of power and privilege. So while it is easy to lie, to tell people that they can achieve anything regardless of who they are or where they come from, it is far more difficult to search for the truth. The truth is that this that my success at the meet was not a result of hard work and dedication, but rather of power and privilege.
I am really tired and trapped under a mosquito net somewhere in Eastern Uganda… I should go to bed. More on my latest adventure to come later.
p.s. Happy 85th birthday, Zadia! See you at the beach in 6 weeks.