Fardowsa Wehliye – Diving into Somalia’s sea for work, health and fun

“My affinity with the sea is boundless. Living so close to the sea triggered my initial interest. It felt like it was in my DNA,” she says.

Mogadishu – Fardowsa Wehliye loves the sea and swimming in it.

Her love for the sea started around 2005, when she was seven years old. At that time, she lived in Mogadishu’s Shangani neighbourhood, from where the surrounding Indian Ocean is still visible.

The Somali capital was a refuge for her and her family from the violence and civil strife engulfing the country at the time. The nearby sea was a refuge from the capital’s hustle and bustle, but also from its frequent security threats and incidents.

For her, it was an alluring but also deadly attraction.

“My father used to take the whole family to the beach on Fridays between 2005 and 2009 – these were my first encounters with the ocean. Though infrequent because of the fighting, they used to fill me with joy,” Ms. Wehliye says.

“I would run towards the water,” she adds, “but I had my father, and images of drowning people, at the back of my head and that kept me where shallow water was.”

Little did she know at the time that her experiences at Mogadishu’s beaches would lead to a life spent in the sea, both for work and pleasure.

“One of those weekends at the beach I went a bit deeper and immersed myself in the water but almost drowned. This experience sparked my determination to master swimming skills,” Ms. Wehliye says.

Now, 19 years afterwards, Ms. Wehliye is an advocate for Somali women taking up swimming or, at the very least, engaging with the country’s more than 3,300 kilometres of coastline whether for work or pleasure.

“Swimming has numerous benefits. It is an exercise that involves all of the body’s muscles. People keep asking me whether I go to the gym, but my only secret is swimming. I would urge people to adopt swimming as a lifestyle choice. I believe it can replace all other forms of exercising,” Ms. Wehliye says.

Cultural misperceptions

The decades of war and civil strife mean that Somalia has had no formal resources to ensure water skills and safety for most Somalis. With so many other priorities for its development, there are no records kept of the number of people who drown or experience other mishaps in the water.

Anecdotally, some Mogadishu residents say many lives have been lost at the city’s beaches due to poor swimming skills, as well as ignorance of basic safety precautions. Many Somali youth are reportedly denied parental permission to go to the beach for fear of drowning.

The City University of Mogadishu introduced her to swimming as part of her marine science undergraduate degree.

In 2018, Ms. Wehliye joined the Bah-Dabaalato, loosely translated as ‘swimming community,’ to learn how to swim and more.

“I heard many instances of people drowning, and I thought we could do something about it. That is when I decided to join the Bah-Dabaalato to learn but also to help teach swimming,” she says.

The Bah-Dabaalato is a local community initiative set up in 2017 by a group of friends. It now has 45 active members – seven of them young women – with Ms. Wehliye serving as its chairwoman.

“We also act as lifeguards. The other day, a lady was swimming in Lido Beach. She was drowning, but fortunately, one of the Bah-Dabaalato team was nearby and rescued her. We want swimmers to have the skills to save themselves and assist others when the need arises,” Ms. Wehliye says.

For its swimming classes and training, the group uses Mogadishu’s main swimming spot, Lido Beach, located in the city centre, and Jazeera Beach, located some 15 kilometres south of the capital.

The Bah-Dabaalato does not charge prospective swimming students, but it does have one condition – after mastering swimming, its graduates must teach another person how to swim.

In addition to the Bah-Dabaatalo’s volunteers, the city authorities have their beach patrol and life rescue service but this has been dormant due to budgetary restrictions.

Women and swimming

Within the Bah-Dabaalato’s remit, Ms. Wehliye has a particular focus: getting more Somali women and girls into the water with the necessary training and skills.

“We prioritise confidence-building activities. We develop our members’ confidence in water; we teach them how to float, how to do basic kicks and how to survive in water, and knowing the survival skills allows you to stay in the water as much as it takes. One should learn these before starting swimming. It boosts your confidence, too,” Ms. Wehliye says.

This is no easy feat – swimming is not a common pastime for Somali women. This is due to social and cultural misperceptions; for many, swimming is considered dangerous and a man’s activity.

“In Mogadishu, few homes have swimming pools. Schools do not offer swimming courses, and no centres teach people how to swim,” Ms. Wehliye says. “There are no spaces dedicated to female swimmers. You can imagine how numerous the challenges are.”

“Culturally, our society does not encourage swimming. It is considered too dangerous even for boys,” she adds. “In a deeply conservative Somalia, girls who go to the beach to swim might be frowned upon.”

Getting Somali women and girls into the water is also complicated by the issue of bathing gear.

A good quality, female swimming costume which is also culturally acceptable in Somalia costs around $60 while a lower-quality one costs around $25. Obtaining either option in Somalia is not easy.

“Swimsuits tailored for Muslim women are not available and, even if there are any, they are beyond the reach of an average person,” notes Ms. Wehliye. “We resort to placing our orders with a business owner who can buy on our behalf abroad.”

To the sea

Ms. Wehliye’s journey to the sea was not a given. She was born far from it in the city of Baidoa, in Somalia’s South West State, in 1997, when the country was in the throes of its civil war, and while her mother was visiting relatives..

Baidoa is some 250 kilometres from Mogadishu, where Ms. Wehliye’s family was living at the time. They had moved there from Baidoa in an attempt to find somewhat safer surroundings. Even in the Somali capital, the family kept moving from one district to another to escape the violent clashes between warlords then jockeying for power.

Her father, Mohamud Wehliye, strongly believed in the power of education to transform lives. He overcame financial limitations and challenged societal traditions for his daughter to stay in school despite the ongoing civil war.

Ms. Wehliye notes that her father’s belief in education came from his childhood experiences. While a boy in Mogadishu, in the early 1950s, the only schools providing formal secular education were run by the Italian colonial administration – but his parents did not want him to attend these schools in fear of non-Islamic influences.

“He used to go to school secretly. He used to hide his books from his parents. When his parents discovered this, they ripped his books apart. He was never disheartened. He educated himself that way. He never treated boys and girls unequally,” Ms. Wehliye says.

In 2006, Ms. Wehliye started her education at the Mujamac Umul Qura School in Mogadishu for primary schooling and then continued in Al-Fajr Secondary School in Elasha Biyaha on the southern outskirts of the capital.

“My childhood was tough because of war. I did not enjoy it at all. I used to see dead bodies on my way to school. It got even worse when I lost my dad,” she recalls. Her father passed away in a car accident in Mogadishu in 2012.

Fortunately, Ms. Wehliye’s top grades meant that her tuition fees were waived, sparing her family too much of a financial burden. However, her father’s demise cast a shadow over her continuing education. Again, fortune – via her family – was on her side: a maternal cousin took her under his wing and covered the remaining, minimal school charges.

She completed her secondary school two years later, in 2014, and then sought to continue her education.

And, once again, it seemed that Somalia’s sea was beckoning – Ms. Wehliye enrolled in the City University of Mogadishu’s Department of Marine Science and Fisheries, from where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Marine Science in 2019.

But the young student was about to dive even deeper into academic studies focused on sea-related science. That same year she was awarded a Turkish Government scholarship and moved to Istanbul for three years to attend Istanbul University.

“When the news reached me, I had mixed feelings, I could not believe my eyes when I received the notification email. I was elated and grateful to be chosen from among many applicants. Three years later, after the graduation at Istanbul University, I felt rewarded for my efforts,” she recalls.

She obtained a Master’s degree in Fisheries Technologies and Management in 2023.

Next generation

As a pioneer female graduate in marine science, Ms. Wehliye is also contributing to educating the next generation of marine scientists in Somalia.

She lectures at her old alma mater, the City University of Mogadishu, at the department she attended. In addition to teaching, she is also involved in fisheries research, fish processing technologies and exploring ways of advancing Somali fisheries through improved infrastructure and technology.

“I am passionate about fishery data collection and fishery management. I want to contribute to better research and data collection. It is a shame we have such a long coast and how little we know about it,” she says.

Ms. Wehliye also represents Somalia in the Women in Marine Science network (WiMS). Launched in 2017 at the 10th Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association Scientific Symposium, WiMS aims to address the gender equality issues that are facing women marine scientists.

Battling stereotypes about women and the sea – both in the workplace and outside of it – is something that Ms. Wehliye can relate to and is determined to change.

“Despite stereotypes, cultural barriers, and discrimination, I urge Somali girls to be bold and pursue their passions. You can excel like anybody else. There are people who would tell you that you don’t belong in this field of science. Don’t listen to them,” she says.

The sea and the UN

Away from the myriad health benefits involved and due to its ability to promote cohesion, sports is recognized by the United Nations as a tool to build peace and development in post-conflict environments, with it being a fundamental right and a powerful tool to strengthen social ties and promote sustainable development and peace, as well as solidarity and respect for all.

In relation to Somalia’s sealanes and shorelines, the United Nations works closely with Somali authorities – at both federal and Federal Member State levels – on strengthening their skills for dealing with their country’s maritime domain. This includes through the development of strategic policy frameworks, capacity building and capability enhancement initiatives, as an important step towards establishing Somalia’s ‘blue economy.’

This work is undertaken by the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), as well as other UN entities and international partners, most notably the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) in Somalia.

In February 2023, the Federal Government of Somalia launched the Women in the Maritime Sector (WiMS) National Action Plan. The plan aims to enhance and empower Somali women in their country’s maritime sector by increasing their opportunities and highlighting their achievements.

The Somali-led process for the Action Plan began in 2019 and was developed through an inclusive approach involving various ministries from both the Federal Government and the country’s Federal Member States, with support from EUCAP Somalia and UNSOM.

For Ms. Wehliye, these initiatives are all well and good and appreciated – but she also has some more immediate needs for now.

“We receive many requests, actually, more than we can handle due… We need swimming pools for women, costumes, swimming goggles, proper shoes for swimming, kickboards, swimming caps and snorkels, among other gear,” she says. “Anyone wishing to donate swimming kits may reach us on Bah-Dabaalato social media pages where our contacts are available.”

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