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Swimming safely: The skills three women are spreading in Tonga to save lives

Young Tongans dive into the ocean.
Swimming skills are building confidence among young Tongans.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

A concerted push is on in Tonga to introduce more people to swimming. Supported by the Australian Government Pacific Sports Partnerships, it may well uncover a champion; but survival, not sport, is the priority.

Three women stand in the golden glow of a setting sun at the end of American Wharf in the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa. With different ages, interests and backgrounds, they have arrived here via vastly different routes and yet they share a deep devotion to teaching the people of Tonga life-saving swimming skills.

Like many, perhaps most, Tongans, Anaseini "Poli" Faleafa once feared the water.

"They just throw you into the water and they expect you to swim," she says, remembering early childhood experiences.

"It takes a lot of energy and I didn't go very far".

Now the 20-year-old not only teaches others to swim, she makes sure no one else feels the fear she once did.

"I let them know that I will be their saviour if they drown, assuring them, making sure that they feel comfortable".

Mele Taunisila (left) and Anaseini Poli Faleafa, volunteer swimming instructors in Tonga
Mele Taunisila (left) and Anaseini Poli Faleafa are determined to reduce drownings in Tonga.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Mele Taunisila, by contrast, is typical of those from her village, but the exception across most of her Pacific Island nation.

"We would rush doing our chores and jobs so that in the evening we could go to the sea and swim," she recalls of her time growing up in Ha'afeva.

"Swimming is like our daily workout'.

Now she wants everyone in Tonga to share her love, but more importantly, learn water survival skills.

"Promoting water safety is the main thing."

"Lots of fishermen they go out and they don't know how to swim. We let them know water is ok if you learn to swim."

Lesley Vick is sharing her love of swimming with Tongans
Lesley Vick wants more Tongans to share her love of the water.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Lesley Vick is an Australian volunteer who has saved untold lives across much of the globe. An enthusiastic ocean swimmer with a love of the sport and a respect for its dangers, she has taught swimming in Vietnam, Cambodia, Palau and back home. She, and partner Jan, are now focussed on making Tonga swim safe.

"Countries like this really don't acknowledge water safety," she says, echoing the sentiments of her local counterparts, borne out by anecdotes and the limited available data.

While many drowning deaths never make officials records, at least one statistical analysis suggests Tonga has the highest drowning death rate in the Pacific.

"Most people are actually quite frightened and they certainly don't consider swimming something they like to do for leisure," Lesley says.

It is also a life-giving skill and a lifestyle.

Lesley Vick teaching how to swim in the ocean.
Lesley has taught swimming throughout Asia and the Pacific

ABC: Aaron Kearney

As she speaks, teenage boys are proving Lesley's words true, attempting to impress each other with spectacular dives from the end of the wharf into the Pacific Ocean, which is a balmy 21 degrees.

Nine-year-old Angelica Uhi isn't interested in showing off for the others, but she is an example of the next generation of Tongans who will have a different relationship with the crystal blue waters that surround their homeland.

"I was scared," she confesses.

"I didn't really know how to swim and I needed some advice. It took time but I've learned to balance and I can swim 100 metres".

Her proud grin suggests she is scared no more.

Young Tongan Angelica Uhi learns to swim.
Angelica Uhi is a Learn-to-Swim success story.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Elsewhere on the island of Tongatapu, there are serious talent development programs underway in the hope that Tonga will produce swimming superstars that become heroes and role models.

But the work of Poli, Mele and Lesley is designed to avoid headlines, not make them, by making sure the people of Tonga don't have to deal with the tragedy and loss of drowning.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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