Jane Labous
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Jane Labous is an award-winning writer, broadcaster and journalist, and has worked as a correspondent and on radio documentaries all over West Africa. She is also press officer for the global child rights NGO Plan International.

Jane is actively involved in advocacy and campaigning work on rights and development issues, particularly those related to African affairs and the global drowning issue.

Entries by Jane Labous

A Tale of Two Worlds - Why an Ancient Tribe's Quest to Save Its Forest and Identity Is Our Problem, Too

(0) Comments | Posted 17 September 2013 | (10:15)

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Jane takes a picture of Noel in a mongulu, the traditional leaf dwelling of the Bakas. There is a mongulu in the settlement where Noel lives, to remind children how their ancestors lived

WHILE doing my job I meet plenty of extraordinary people,...

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Amanda, Gina and Michelle Are Out of the Attic But 140Million More Girls Need Setting Free

(0) Comments | Posted 9 May 2013 | (16:47)

On Monday morning came the news of three women incarcerated in an attic for ten years by a middle-aged bus driver who abducted them, one by one, when they were teenagers. A disbelieving neighbour says he used to have barbecues with the guy, never in his wildest dreams imagining that...

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How Changing Cultural Attitudes Will Give Senegal's Street Children a Voice

(2) Comments | Posted 9 April 2013 | (00:00)

Five year-old Ngagne is filthy; his shorts, two sizes two big, crusted with grime; the slogan on his t-shirt completely obliterated by stains and dirt; snot running out of his nose, face smeared with dust and dirt. The little boy misses his parents and, he whispers in Wolof as flies...

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A Vaccine Against Drowning - Lifeguards and Swimming Lessons Can Keep Africa's Children Afloat

(1) Comments | Posted 23 March 2013 | (10:40)

When I heard about the eight little boys drowned off a beach suburb of Dakar last August, I wasn't shocked. It was just the latest in a long line of drowning fatalities along this wild and unmanned coast, another small, sad news-in-brief story in L'Observateur. The boys, all aged eight and nine, had been playing on the shoreline when they were dragged out to sea by a strong rip current. None of them could swim. By the time the emergency services arrived, it was too late. Had there been a lifeguard service, the children would probably have survived.

In October 2011, while working as a journalist in Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa, I researched a story about a group of lifeguards at Yoff, one of the only beaches in this ocean-cradled capital city to have such a service. The maîtres nageurs sauveteurs, many of them volunteers or drafted from the fire service, told me of the overwhelming drowning problem along the coast of this part of West Africa; of the multiple fatalities that occur every year in the pounding surf and treacherous currents and of the efforts their small service is doing to address the issue in their beach community.

Back in the United Kingdom, a conversation with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) progressed what might have remained as a random meeting into something extraordinary. The two supervisors of the Yoff lifeguard team were invited to attend a bespoke RNLI training course - called Future Leaders in Lifesaving (www.rnli.org/international ) - at the charity's headquarters in Poole in August 2012, along with delegates of lifeguard teams from several other developing countries. They learnt how to manage and develop their own lifesaving organisation. Two RNLI trainers then travelled to Dakar in December to train all the lifeguards from Yoff and some from nearby beach, Ngor.

The scheme was a resounding success. The lifeguards, all of them dedicated, passionate and talented, quickly picked up the RNLI's techniques and honed their existing skills in identifying causes of drowning, the role of a lifeguard and the equipment needed to run a lifesaving service. Pledges were made on both sides to continue the development of the service and the second Future Leaders in Lifesaving programme will take place at RNLI HQ in July.
I was lucky enough to be in Senegal during the two weeks training in December, and while researching the drowning issue, heard much about the problem. An interview with the very dignified Batir Sow, 47, whose four year-old son Mohammed drowned last summer off a stretch of unsurveilled beach in Dakar, was particularly harrowing. Little Mohammed loved the water, but like most children and adults in Dakar, could not swim. One afternoon, Mohammed trotted off to the beach and never returned.

"The next day," recounts Batir, "the police commander told me they'd found a body at Layenne Yoff, and I knew it was my son."

School in Senegal is not mandatory; let alone swimming lessons. The few lifeguards that there are may be willing (they can often be found giving impromptu swimming lessons to kids), but they lack time, funds, training, state support, floats and access to swimming pools in which to teach. There are few private swimming teachers and needless to say, poor parents cannot afford to spend an extra £10 a month on sending their children to private swimming lessons.

Batir talks movingly about his son's drowning, stressing the need in Dakar for children to learn to swim. "Dakar is a place of fishermen," he says, "and the sea is, frankly, all we have. We love the sea. So we have to find solutions for schools and how to teach children to swim. When summer comes and you go to the beach, you see a crazy scene - there are over 4000 people at the beach, and among them only 200 people who can swim - it's so dangerous."
"People are dying on the beaches and it's mainly children aged seven to 16 years old, because they can't swim," adds Ibrahima Fall, a volunteer lifeguard from Yoff. "The majority of drownings occur in summer as it's the holidays. Children can't swim and aren't familiar with the currents or the waves, but they desperately want to be in the water. They see no danger."
The sentiment is one echoed all the way down the West African coast, particularly in the increasingly populated capitals of Freetown, Conakry, Monrovia; Abidjan, Accra and Douala. A burgeoning population who cannot swim, coupled with un-lifeguarded beaches pounded by the great, fierce Atlantic is a certain recipe for drowning. Nor is the problem limited to the coasts. In Africa, lakes, ponds and rivers are used daily for drinking water or for washing dishes and bathing. These become high-risk activities if a person is unable to swim or survive in water, and can be particularly perilous during periods of extreme weather and flooding. Despite a common perception of Africa as a 'dry continent', villages are often built within close proximity of rivers, beaches or lakes to take advantage of an accessible water supply. From the still blue ocean off Zanzibar to the Atlantic cities of the west, via the lakes and rivers of the great interior, drowning is blighting the African continent.
The work done so far by the RNLI and other organisations such as the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA), which has just launched a 'drowning tracker' tool (www.drowningtracker.com) designed to help people record worldwide drownings, is a positive step to address a problem that is barely recognised on the international development agenda. This despite the fact that globally, drowning is a leading cause of death and claims over one million lives per year. The majority are children. In Africa, most drownings go unrecorded and there is a startling lack of research into the scale of the drowning epidemic on the continent. What we do know is that over 97% of drowning deaths occur in low and middle income countries, but despite the scale of the problem, the problem is barely recognised - a hidden disaster.

Now that lifeguarding services are being established in Dakar and elsewhere in Africa, the next stage of the water safety campaign is to develop a system for teaching children to swim. Recent evidence from Asia has shown that giving aquatic survival lessons to children over five years is an effective intervention against fatal drowning, significantly reducing the risk by over 85%. As water-related activities in Africa are very similar to those in Asia, we can assume that the protective effect of survival against drowning would be the same in the African context. And of course, the concept is beautifully simple; teach a child to swim and he or she will swim for life, passing on the skill to others. Swimming becomes, in effect, a 'vaccine' against drowning.

For these reasons, the RNLI is now working with partners to develop an open-source aquatic survival 'toolkit' to make available to schools, swimming teachers and other local organisations in Africa, to provide a resource for teaching children to swim in a variety of different environments. Whether it teaches ten children or a million children to swim, I believe the new Aquatic Survival project can only help to address an African development issue that is, at the moment, largely ignored. Its message, to give local people the tools to implement the preventative measure of swimming skills alongside the curative measure of effective lifeguarding services, is a strong, sustainable approach. And the voice of support is undeniable on the ground. For it is Batir's words that always come echoing back to me.
"This is something that, if I were the President of Senegal, I'd sign the paper today," the heartbroken father told me. "Help us to swim, so that we can help others, because I don't want anyone else to ever have to feel what I felt that day when my son...

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This World Water Day, Let's Not Forget It's a Luxury for Some

(0) Comments | Posted 21 March 2013 | (23:00)

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Last time I was in Dakar, Senegal, my apartment only had cold water. When I first arrived, I considered this a hardship, and I'd diligently warm a pan of water on the stove every morning for my shower. Transferring the pan to...

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News Editors Are Suddenly Embracing the Mali Conflict; But Mali's Gentle, Modest People Will Find This New Violence Horrifying

(3) Comments | Posted 28 January 2013 | (23:00)

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Photo: Friday prayer at Djenné's Great Mosque ©janelabous

London, January 25 2013: WHEN I first went backpacking to Mali in 1998, no-one had ever heard of the place. Thirteen years later I spent two months researching and writing a radio documentary there, living with...

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A Suitable Match: The Zambian Feminists Who Are Standing Up for Girl Power

(0) Comments | Posted 8 January 2013 | (07:37)

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ZAMBIA, 8 January 2013: IT was in the middle of an east African afternoon, beneath a mango tree shaded from the hazy sun, that I met Gladys Phiri, 32, history teacher, single mother and, it soon became apparent, cheerfully outspoken feminist here in...

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Studying at the Second Best University on the Planet Means Nothing if I Can't Help the Poorest Girls on the Planet go to School

(9) Comments | Posted 8 October 2012 | (00:00)

London, October 2012: This morning I found out that the university where I studied is the second best on the planet, and it really made me think. When I read English and French there in the late nineties, I had the privilege of learning beneath the dreaming spires of this...

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With Female Athletes In Every Team, Why Is the Olympics So Meaningful for Africa's Girl?

(0) Comments | Posted 30 July 2012 | (14:45)

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On Friday night, as the London Olympic Stadium glittered and the crowd cheered and the MC boomed the names of the world's countries one by one, a teenage athlete from Niger seemed to encapsulate how these great games represent something far more important than...

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As Two Senegalese Lifeguards Head to the UK, Why Learning to Swim is the Answer to Africa's 'Hidden Catastrophe'

(0) Comments | Posted 11 July 2012 | (16:47)

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DAKAR, JULY 11 2012: Do you remember school swimming lessons? I'd be willing to bet that you share some kind of memory of that familiar routine - swimming bags and verruca socks; the elastic flick of swimming hats; the chlorine echo of the swimming...

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African Girl Power: How 36 Girl Footballers are Scoring All the Goals in Togo

(0) Comments | Posted 9 July 2012 | (15:45)

TOGO, WEST AFRICA, 10th July 2012: BENEATH a mango tree in the village of Kasséna, in the slim, tropical West African nation of Togo, a cluster of elders gathers around a tiny transistor radio. All of a sudden, the men emit a collective cheer and punch the air. The village...

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The Forgotten Crisis: As the Hunger Season Sets In, Burkinabés Need Not Worry About Body Image

(7) Comments | Posted 6 June 2012 | (00:00)

There are no proper words to describe the heartbreaking sight of a malnourished child. No image on TV can prepare you for the sheer lightness of their bodies, their minuscule wrists, their over-sized, slightly bulging heads; the breathtaking shock of realising that the cute baby who looks newborn is actually...

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The Forgotten Crisis: Refugees In Burkina Faso Glimpse Hope Despite The Conditions, As the UN's Valerie Amos Pays a Visit

(0) Comments | Posted 23 May 2012 | (18:26)

MENTEO REFUGEE CAMP, BURKINA FASO, 22 May 2012: It was 5pm when it started to rain, the wide grey sky looming lower and lower over the flat red earth; a swirl of mist and red dust rising from nowhere; huge rusty drops hitting the car windows. Streams of water began...

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Burkina Faso: The Forgotten Crisis - Over 18 Million People Are Affected by a Hunger and a Food Crisis, and It's Not in the News...

(2) Comments | Posted 22 May 2012 | (00:00)

Tomorrow I get on a plane to Ougadougou, Burkina Faso. Over the last couple of days, the principle response to this piece of news has been 'Burkina what?'. Which would be quite funny, if it wasn't for the fact that, from Ougadougou, I will travel out to a place called...

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