To read, to swim, the privilege of a few

The founder of GLUE Studio will ride to Paris with Tech Bikers to raise funds for Room To Read. Reading, like swimming, is a life skill badly needed in girls within the developing world. GLUE editor Salina Christmas looks at the family inspiration behind the ride, and the cultural obstacles that girls in that region face in learning to read, as well as to swim.

It’s not an ice bucket challenge, but hopefully, the three-day charity ride that our founder, Zarina Holmes, will do this month for Techbikers will be a rain-free affair.

To be held between 19 and 21 September 2014, the ride will see several cyclists from the tech community travelling from London to Paris to raise funds for Room To Read, a charity focused on literacy and gender equality in education in Asia and Africa.

Doing it for the kids

A write-up by Tech City News on Zarina Holmes's effort for Tech Bikers. You can donate to Room To Read at this link.
A write-up by Tech City News on Zarina Holmes’s effort for Techbikers. Donate to Room To Read

Zarina Holmes, the GLUE Studio founder, said to me that she is motivated by the illiteracy of both our grandmothers and an aunt who looked after us when we were kids.

It is true both our grandmothers could not read Roman alphabets. I taught my aunt, dad’s oldest sister and also our carer when our mom was away at work – the ABCs that I learned at kindergarten. We came back from school, and before we went out to play, I taught her the alphabets. At times, I wrote her letters to her son. She would dictate, and I would write in shaky, huge alphabets. I was only six.

So there you have it, a confession: two sisters, creative twins, educated to master level at prestigious British institutions, raised by illiterate women.

Sports skills are also literacy

These women were by no means clueless about the world. If anything, they were aware of their shortcomings. They sent their children to school. Things went as planned because the majority of the grandchildren went to universities.

But there was, I felt, something lacking. Having a soldier as a dad meant that childhood was spent in an overly active, if not prescribed, way: camping, running, cycling, building tents, hiking, living in jungles – certainly no video games.

But one life skill was totally missing in our childhood: the ability to swim.

Swimming as literacy

At 5,15pm, we set off. A few days before, my mother asked me how I would be able to swim in an open lake. I had no idea. If I could survive army camps for 15 years, surely I could do this. Photo: © GLUE
At the London’s ITU World Triathlon in June 2014. I was one of the red-capped swimmers braving the lukewarm water of the Serpentine. I didn’t know how to swim 11 months before that race. Zarina Holmes supported me all the way. Photo: © GLUE. Donate to Room To Read

I wrote not long ago about my quest in becoming a triathlete, despite not being able to swim last year. I couldn’t help question myself why I had to go to that extreme to make up for years of not being able to swim.

Sport skills are life skills. When nurtured at a young age, sports have the potential in determining the level of a person’s active lifestyle in adulthood. I was fortunate, for a Southeast Asian female, to have had an unconventional upbringing. Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy watching our dad’s shooting competitions, or that ‘Spartan-Tough Mudder’ races that he took part in for his regiment, but he did drove us to our track and field races. He loved that and we enjoyed it, too.

Yup, I did it. I swam - or crawled - the 450m that it took me to finish Phase 1. I did the race in 1 hour 15 minutes. Thanks, coaches! Photo: ©Zarina Holmes / GLUE.
Yup, I did it. I swam – or crawled – the 450m that it took me to finish Phase 1. I did the race in 1 hour 15 minutes. Thanks, coaches! Photo: ©Zarina Holmes / GLUE. Donate to Room To Read

But swimming was always out of the equation. It got worst when we reached adolescence. No swimsuits. No track and field. No softball training. Eventually, we stopped going to beach for swims altogether – until I graduated and became a travel journalist. Then I moved to the UK. The water is cold, so I chose to do taekwondo instead. Swimming was out of my life for quite a while.

“The discouragement with regards to
swimming was more to do with trying
to be in keeping with the cultural norms”

The discouragement that I got from my parents, and that society, with regards to swimming, was more to do with them trying to be in keeping with the cultural norms. Women should not be exposed, and must be kept separate from men. Thankfully, not all sports suffer from this, though. Cycling is encouraged in women – Malaysia produces some world-class female track cyclists. Scuba-diving is quite a hit with the women. Because you’re all covered up in a dry suit from head to toe. Surfing is big with the guys, naturally. Basically, as long as the woman doesn’t wear a swimsuit, that activity is fine.

No, I don’t get it, either, but that’s not going to change any time soon.

About this Techbikers ride

Zarina Holmes with her Claud Butler, for the Tech Bikers' #bikesup Twitter campaign. Photo: ©Salina Christmas / GLUE
Zarina Holmes with her Claud Butler, for the Tech Bikers’ #bikesup Twitter campaign. Photo: ©Salina Christmas / GLUE. Donate to Room To Read

Our founder aims to raise £500 for Room To Read with this ride. It is good that the money would go into educating children – girls included – to read.

In terms of that specific life skill – swimming –the developing world still has a long way to go. I once talked to a customer at the shop, who was covered from head to toe in a niqab, about sports. She was looking for a set of dumb bells. She said she loved swimming, but couldn’t do it in the public pools in the UK because “men would look”.

I countered: “I think people would be too occupied to stay afloat to look at other people”. It’s true. We trained in a mixed triathlon squad – nobody had time looking at each other’s bits.

A few days ago, I sent via Viber a few images of me at the London’s ITU World Triathlon, to my youngest sister – a trained computer programmer who left her career to be a mother of four daughters. First she texted: “Cool photos”. After a pause, she texted: “I don’t know how to swim”.

I texted back: “I can teach you x”.

Donate to Room To Read. Thank you.


BMC Public Health: Enhancing life prospect of socially vulnerable youth through sport participation
International Journal For Equity In Health: Literacy and health-seeking among women with low education attainment

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