Meet Arafat Gatabazi. A refugee from the DRC Congo who arrived in South Africa in 2012 and ended up at the street children’s home, the Homestead. By 2014 he was named long-distance Swimmer of the Year and now runs the Granadilla Swimming Academy. We find out more about his extraordinary journey and remarkable resilience.
Q: What was life like at the Homestead?
A: Life was very different there; most of the children had little to no aspiration of a good future. And I naturally found myself stuck in the same position. It was only through the intervention of a volunteer worker that I found a better way of life.
Q: How did you get into Swimming?
A: After arriving in South Africa, I learnt how to swim in a pool. Learning English was also initially a challenge, but one that I embraced wholeheartedly. I found swimming and education very inspirational and this appealed to my desire to be more. Education taught me how to rise above my circumstances with the gift that is knowledge. The more I learned, the more addictive it became, challenging me to keep progressing higher and higher.
Swimming has thrown me into the deep end of life!
Just as the streets taught me how to survive, the swimming pool was yet another survival test. After learning how to swim, I became curious about swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.
Q: Tell us how your long-distance swimming started?
A: My curiosity was sparked after I heard about another boy at the Homestead who was training for a programme to swim from Robben Island to Big Bay. I humbly requested to be considered for the programme. I saw it as such a privilege. Not knowing what was in store for me, I was accepted for this training, which would be a true test of character and endurance. Even though my vision was to do the Robben Island swim myself one day, I was only initially incorporated into the training programme as the young swimmer’s motivational partner.
For two months, we trained together and motivated each other. However, the darkness of the streets reclaimed him, making him forget about training with me. His departure from the programme left me all alone. Since I could not fulfill the role of being his motivator, I was demotivated and doubtful about doing the Robben Island swim.
Q: Tell us about your first attempt at the long-distance crossing?
A: After eleven months of learning how to swim and regular training to the best of my ability, I made my first attempt at the Robben Island to Blouberg swim. However, I was unsuccessful. Hypothermia robbed me of my projected goal. I was disappointed, as I consider myself an ‘ambassador of hope’ to everyone I meet, especially to the underprivileged Homestead boys that I lived with. I wanted to show them an alternative to a disappointing life of the streets and poverty. Homestead boys are perceived as nothing more than potential criminals or failures by society, which are all misconceptions.
Q: And then what happened after your first attempt?
A: Despite my disappointment at my failed first attempt, I never forgot my goal. I reattempted the Robben Island to Blouberg swim. It was a tough 7.5-kilometre swim in icy waters hovering between 10-15 degrees Celsius. To add to the challenge, there are sea animals and sea conditions. This time around, I completed the swim which truly taught me that nothing is impossible when you set your mind to it. You just must go out there and try new things. You can achieve the things that some people say are impossible. I only learned how to swim for 11 months and was able to do the Robben Island crossing.
Q: What achievements have you had in swimming career?
- Named Swimmer of the Year 2014 by the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association
- Completed Robben Island swim three times
- Swam around Cape Point
- Swam around Robben Island
- Milnerton lighthouse to Big Bay
Q: What are the challenges competing in long-distance swimming?
A: It’s a lonely sport. You spend a long time swimming alone and the only thing you hear is your stroke and your breathing going through the icy waters of the ocean. Swimming in the cold water is one of the biggest challenges especially as I don’t swim in a wetsuit.
Q: Do you have a mentor / a hero – who and why?
A: My greatest mentors are Marion Wagner, the volunteer who introduced me to swimming and Maik Dierk my coach. He taught me and trained me to swim the Robben Island crossing. Without the two of them, my swimming would not have happened.
My biggest hero in this world is my mother. She raised me single-handedly and taught me the values of life when I was still young. She helped me become who I am today.
Q: How do you stay fit and competitive?
A: I train as much as I can during the week. I train with my coach every Monday and with the Blouberg Merlin Swimming Club about three times a week. I also try and fit in ocean swims and dry land training.
Q: Tell us more about the Granadilla Swim Academy?
A: Swimming helped me in a lot of different ways. When I left the Homestead in 2015 I wanted to give back to them, so I took over the swimming classes that were offered every Thursday evening. After a while teaching the Homestead boys, I thought of getting more underprivileged kids to join the swimming. Adam Duxbury and Josh Meltz from Granadilla Swimwear wanted to get involved, so we partnered to form the Academy where we teach underprivileged kids from different communities.
Q: What are your goals for the Swim Academy?
A: Our vision is to bridge the gap between children who have never been exposed to water safety and water sports and those who have grown up in our oceans and swimming pools. Many kids from townships and Children’s Homes don’t know how to swim, despite having beaches in Cape Town and public swimming pools in their communities.
We believe that by providing the opportunity for kids to learn how to swim, we can be the catalyst in reducing drownings and a fear of water.
Being in the water and learning how to swim connects vulnerable young people from violent communities. It helps to shape them into caring adults and creates opportunities for them to learn new skills, practice new coping mechanisms and form healing relationships with trusted peers.
The water allows kids to redefine the way young people see themselves and the way they experience life. Kids are forced to overcome personal fears and are taught to respect the water, themselves and peers. We want to provide a safe place for kids to be able to learn to swim, which will then open opportunities to engage in other water sports.
Q: If you could give some advice to any young up and coming swimmers what would it be?
A: That nothing is impossible. It is only impossible when you believe it is. It doesn’t mean that everything is easy – it’s not, you must work hard. Everything requires hard work, but it can be done. You just have to go out there and try new things. Most of the things you want to try can be scary, but that cannot stop you from achieving what you want.
Q: What is your life mantra?
A: There are quite a few, but the one that stands out for me is: ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’
Thursday was swim day 💦 it gets pretty crazy in the water 😝and don't panic the pool is heated 💥 hit us up for more information on the Granadilla Swimming Academy 🌈 #granadillakids #lifeinshorts
Posted by Granadilla on Friday, 8 September 2017
Q: How can our readers help or get involved in the Granadilla Swim Academy?
- Become a volunteer when we teach kids swimming
- A swimming facility. We normally teach at the Long Street swimming pool; however, this is closed now.
- Transportation to get the kids to swimming
- Healthy nutrition after swimming
- We always need swimming gear
- Become a swimming coach. I’m the only one that teaches swimming. Josh and Adam come when they have time to help look after the kids
The virtuous cycle of ‘paying it forward’ is playing out for Gatabazi now, as he prepares his first young protege for his maiden Robben Island crossing. Amanzi salutes him for his unwavering determination to change his destiny through swimming. And more importantly for his willingness to share his success with others who need it most.
Arafat, you are truly an inspiration to all!