16 June 2017

Children lost to drowning: Turning heartbreak into action

For most of us, it’s impossible to imagine how it must feel to lose a child to drowning. Sadly, it’s a feeling far too many parents are familiar with. Drowning is a leading killer of children worldwide, affecting the poorest first and worst. In Bangladesh alone, 50 children drown every single day.

To raise awareness of this silent epidemic, we're sharing the stories of two fathers who have endured the anguish of losing a child. They both want to make a difference in their communities and make sure no-one else suffers a loss like them.

Syed, Bangladesh

Syed is a banker who lives in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As well as looking after his two children, Syed began caring for his 12-year-old nephew, Jamal (pictured above on the left), to give him a better start in life.

Syed
lost his nephew Jamal after he was washed away while playing in the seaPhoto: RNLI/Harrison Bates
Syed lost his nephew Jamal after he was washed away while playing in the sea

‘Jamal used to live in a remote area,’ Syed explains. ‘We arranged a good school for his education; we tried to offer him everything.’

Jamal quickly become a beloved part of the community. ‘He was a very good-natured boy. He was hardworking, very polite and gentle,’ Syed remembers. ‘Not only did he win the hearts of our family members, but the hearts of our neighbours too.’

On 15 August 2016, Jamal drowned while playing at the beach with friends. Four of them went into the water at Sea Crown Point, but quickly started drifting out to sea. A lifeguard spotted the boys in distress beyond his patrol area and managed to save three of them, but he couldn’t reach Jamal.

The beach at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where Jamal played with friendsPhoto: RNLI/Mike Lavis
The beach at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where Jamal played with friends

Syed was at home, getting ready for afternoon prayer. ‘Suddenly a person came to our house and told us Jamal had been washed away while he was swimming in the sea. I was frozen, I couldn’t move. After a while I came round and went to Sea Crown Point. I couldn’t believe that he had been washed away. I stood there for a long time. I was very much heartbroken - I can’t explain how much.’

Syed had to break the news to Jamal’s mother: ‘She became really upset, crying non-stop. The way she was crying, it felt like the whole sky, the whole wind, became heavy.’

The family stayed on the beach all night, hoping to find Jamal’s body. There was no sign of him. In desperation, they rented a boat to search further afield but after 4 days, they still hadn’t found him.

On the sixth day of searching, the family received word through Facebook that a body had been found, 30 miles away on the island of Kutubdia. Syed knew it was Jamal.

The next day, the family went to collect Jamal’s body. ‘We brought him home and, after dressing him, buried him in the local graveyard.’

Making a difference

Syed doesn’t want other families to feel the same pain he suffered.

Syed told the children at Jamal’s school to always tell their guardian where
they’re goingPhoto: RNLI/Harrison Bates
Syed told the children at Jamal’s school to always tell their guardian where they’re going
‘Keep your children safe so you don’t feel the same heartbreak.’
Syed
who lost his nephew Jamal to drowning

He went to Jamal’s school and talked to the children about staying safe.

‘I told them: “My children, you’re vibrant and restless. Always playing and jumping around. You go to the sea, you go to the hills. It’s normal, you’re young. But listen, wherever you go, always tell your guardian.”’

Syed also reached out to the locals and implored them to keep watch over their children.

‘I waited outside the mosque at Friday prayers to reach all the local people. I told them: “I have suffered this loss already. My sister’s child, my nephew. Please look after your children. Keep them safe, so you don’t feel the same heartbreak.”’

Wadi, Zanzibar

Wadi, 55, is a farmer, mechanic and carpenter from Kigunda, Zanzibar. Last year, he lost his son Tota in a fishing accident.

Wadi
lost his son Tota, who went missing during a fishing tripPhoto: RNLI/Aram Atkinson
Wadi lost his son Tota, who went missing during a fishing trip

Tota left school in 2012 and started fishing to earn a living. On 13 August 2016, he went fishing on a sardine boat with several others. ‘A lot of people these days are involved in sardine fishing,’ says Wadi. ‘I don’t know how many others there were on the boat, but I don’t think fewer than 13.’

During the fishing trip, the fishermen dropped anchor and took an afternoon nap. When they woke up, Tota was gone.

Tota
was fishing to earn more money, to finish building his home more quicklyPhoto: RNLI/Mike Lavis
Tota was fishing to earn more money, to finish building his home more quickly

‘They told us that when they woke up to throw out the nets, they realised their colleague was not in the boat. That’s the report they gave us,’ remembers Wadi. ‘We didn’t hear about it straight away, we just heard there was a vessel that had lost one person and that they were looking for him.

‘I called Tota’s phone and couldn’t get hold of him. Then I called his friends and couldn’t get hold of them either, so I called the owner of the boat.’

The boat owner had been called to meet with a local councillor. Worried, Wadi’s brother Haji went to follow up with them both. They had heart-breaking news.

‘Later on, my brother and the councillor came to break the news that the person who had disappeared was my child,’ says Wadi.

‘My wife had already left the house, so I asked some children to go get her. Then I went to my mother, Tota’s grandmother, and asked her: “Have you had breakfast?” She replied: “If something has happened, just tell me.” I said: “Your grandson is no longer with us on earth.”’

Turning grief into good

‘Tota was a good role model and until now, he’s never made it difficult for me,’ says Wadi. ‘He was exemplary for his siblings, and his death is even more painful for me because he had already started building his house. He was just finishing the frame of the house. Recently when I got some money, I decided to continue the construction.’

Building your home is a key rite of passage in rural communities in Zanzibar. It means you're able to provide for your anticipated family.

Wadi wanted to search for his son, but was asked to cover the cost of fuel for the search and rescue boat to be launched.

‘It was an obstacle for my family to be charged for 100 litres of petrol, but I thank them for clubbing together to get the money for the fuel to go and search for 2 days.’

Tota was never found.

Wadi
wants to see better safety measures in place to protect the fishermen of
ZanzibarPhoto: RNLI/Aram Atkinson
Wadi wants to see better safety measures in place to protect the fishermen of Zanzibar

‘Every fisherman who contributes towards the government believes that the government should help with rescue costs,’ says Wadi. ‘They should facilitate the local constituencies, particularly those for fishery, with the means for search and rescue.’

The tragic death of Tota has inspired Wadi to do something positive.

He’s a community educator, the first person to set up a village blood bank and helps teach people about HIV prevention and maternal health. He now includes sea safety messages in his education work, for children and adults alike.

Wadi wants to see fishermen helped, with the provision of lifejackets, and a stronger maritime foundation to carry out rescues ‘when somebody is met with a calamity like mine’.

What can we do to help?

Drowning claims an estimated 360,000 lives around the world every year, over one-third of which are children. It’s a shocking statistic, especially as these deaths are largely preventable.

However, achieving a significant reduction in drowning around the world will be a big challenge. It’s not currently on the radar at an international level and it competes with a whole range of other issues. That’s why we’re working with partners to make drowning prevention a global priority.

We're working with the United Nations (UN) and other development agencies to ensure countries can put effective drowning prevention strategies in place at a regional and national level.

At a local level, we’re helping partners provide at-risk communities, like Syed and Wadi’s, with the knowledge, equipment and skills they need to prevent these heart-breaking tragedies from occurring.

Visit our international pages to find out how we’re helping to create a world where nobody should drown.

You can help us save more lives around the world by donating to our international fund.