Daily exposure to water hazards, coupled with the inability to swim, can prove a fatal combination for Tanzania’s people.

The country has a large coastal fishing community, and with cargo and passenger boats active between the mainland coast and islands, Tanzania has suffered a series of large-scale tragedies in its waters.

Drowning in Tanzania

Dhow fishing boats in Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

Traditional dhow boats off the coast of Zanzibar. Fishing can be a hazardous profession in Tanzania.

Like a lot of fishermen in Zanzibar, Ali Hamdu has been involved in serious boating accidents - in the first he was stranded at sea for 2 days. Compared to farming and other labour, fishing pays a meaningful wage, forcing many to pay the ultimate price for supporting their families.

Ali says. ‘Yes you can change jobs and you can change your life, but only based on your finances and the opportunities you have. Now I’ve recovered from these incidents, I can’t just doss around - I’m forced to do the same thing. Most of us would change jobs if we could.

RNLI partners in Tanzania

  • Panje Project logo
    Panje Project

    Panje is a non-government organisation in Nungwi, on the northern tip of Zanzibar, committed to improving local people’s prospects in an area dominated by tourism. Their community contacts, particularly in highly respected fishing groups - plus an abundance of clean, clear water for swimming lessons - helped us to test the Aquatic Survival intervention in a setting with limited resources.

    Panje Project Facebook page
  • TSR logo
    Tanzania Sea Rescue (TSR)

    TSR is a new, volunteer-led search and rescue organisation, who approached us for advice on training and organisational development. Given the clear need for search and rescue teams in the seas off Tanzania, we were pleased to help.

    TSR website
  • IHI logo
    Ifakara Health Institute (IHI)

    IHI is one of Africa’s leading independent health research organisations. With over 50 years’ experience in research, development and evaluation on a range of health issues, they collect drowning data and have good relationships with other organisations that do the same.

    IHI website
  • MITU logo
    Mwanza Intervention Trials Unit (MITU)

    MITU is a research partnership that develops and tests interventions for a range of issues. Their strong connections with fishing communities around Lake Victoria have informed a research programme in the area.

    MITU website

How we’re making a difference together

Aquatic Survival: Swimming lessons for children in rural Zanzibar

Our work with Panje has been central to creating both the swimming and classroom elements of the Aquatic Survival intervention. The Ministry of Education is supporting us to recruit children into lessons, and also to train schoolteachers to deliver water safety messages.

Boys learn to swim in an Aquatic Survival lesson in Nungwi, Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

A swimming lesson in the sea in Nungwi, Zanzibar

An important part of the process has been finding ways to increase girls’ access to the same level of education, within a conservative culture. The growing numbers of female swimming teachers are leading the way, setting an example and giving families the confidence for their daughters to learn.

In 2017, Panje taught 2,190 children to swim - just over half of them girls - and almost 50,000 children learned water safety messages from their schoolteachers.

Life as an Aquatic Survival teacher

Zanzibar Aquatic Survival swimming teacher Halima

Photo: RNLI/Philly Byrde

Swimming teacher Halima Ali Haji is also a tailor, and she’s helped design appropriate swimwear for girls so that they have an equal chance to take part.

‘My message to all my girls is to listen and study well, because swimming will help them in future - just look at me! I’m proud of my job, because we women have become famous across Zanzibar for being swimming teachers. In the whole of Zanzibar, they only make us in Nungwi!

‘The biggest challenges? The water dynamics and currents can change very quickly. And when the tide goes out, it goes out for miles. So sometimes to meet the tide we have to wake up at 5am to teach.’

Taking to the water: Tanzania’s first voluntary lifeboat service

Two Tanzania Sea Rescue volunteers training on their lifeboat

Photo: Claus Dettelbacher

Tanzania Sea Rescue volunteers training afloat

TSR approached us in 2016 to help with their fledgling service, an inshore lifeboat crewed by volunteers who protect the coastline around Dar es Salaam.

As part of our maritime search and rescue mentoring, the RNLI is providing training in operations, first aid and instructor training, and giving safety advice to at-risk groups including local fishermen. Ultimately we want to help TSR become a self-sustaining service, perhaps one that could expand nationally.
[hyperlink: to maritime search and rescue intervention page]

Being a TSR volunteer

Tanzania Sea Rescue Helm Shukuru Lugawa

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Shukuru Lugawa was TSR’s first volunteer, and he’s now a qualified lifeboat helm:

‘I used to work on tourism boats. We used to sail around and I saw people, especially fishermen, with problems at sea, but no one to rescue them.

‘The first person our new lifeboat rescued was a sick sailor who was sailing from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. They were anchored near the shore, but they couldn’t get to shore for 4 days.

‘I can say I’m proud of myself, but it’s not only for me, it’s for everyone, for every Tanzanian.’


Understanding drowning in Tanzania

See our international research section for a major project to gather data on Tanzania’s drowning problem.

DRIFT: Drowning prevention in Lake Victoria’s fishing communities

Artisanal (small-scale, low-tech) fishing can be particularly hazardous, as fishers work alone or in small groups, often with no protective or communications equipment.

DRIFT* works with MITU and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to understand the drowning risks faced by fishing communities on the shores of Lake Victoria. We wanted to know:

  1. How many people drown each year.
  2. Who is most at risk - and why.
  3. How the perceived risk of drowning affects attitudes to other diseases.
  4. Social and economic impacts of drowning.
  5. How practical and acceptable various prevention activities would be.
Fishermen in the shore break in Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

Fishermen using traditional boats in Zanzibar. The RNLI is involved in a research project to reduce drowning in fishing communities on Lake Victoria in mainland Tanzania.

The results

So far, the study has produced a valuable set of data and personal accounts, including 300 survey answers from fishermen, 300 from general community members, plus detailed information on 104 deaths in the past 2 years alone.

Focus groups on topics such as impact and prevention will help make sure the right interventions are in place to prevent many more tragedies.

*Drowning Intervention Strategies for Fishing Communities in Tanzania

Discover more


Aquatic Survival in Zanzibar has received funding from:

  • Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation, whose primary objective is to save lives by fighting against drowning. Its missions are to raise public awareness about the dangers of water, teach children preventive measures, and teach them to swim.
  • The Owl Trust
  • The Peter Cundill Foundation: Established in 2012, the foundation honours the legacy of renowned Canadian investment fund manager and philanthropist, F Peter Cundill FCA, CFA, 1938-2011. The foundation has an emphasis on promoting the health, education and wellbeing of young people.


15 lessons to teach a child to swim

90 minutes per lesson

2,190 children learned to swim in Zanzibar in 2017

63 volunteers at Tanzania Sea Rescue

Our international vision is of a world in which no-one should drown. Could you help us towards this vision?

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