Swimming Partners | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Swimming Partners by Timwa Lipenga

Swimming Partners is a beautiful short story written by Timwa Lipenga that captures the deep bond that exists between sisters through its central characters- Linda and Aisha. No matter what comes in between them, the two are always ‘swimming partners’ in the ocean of life. They may have radically contrasting characters but they always stand together, as a single unit, in the face of all adversities. The relationship that these sisters share is a testimony to the power of love. Though fate leads them both towards entirely different paths, in the end they both reach the same destination. Despite each having chosen a life so unlike the other, the adversities faced by them both are similar, with both of them falling prey to the same misfortune. And just like they faced everything together in their childhood, they face this problem too hand in hand with each other, one supporting the other throughout.  The story deals with the themes of love, trust and the relationship between sisters.

Swimming Partners, along with her other short story “Duty” has been published in African Road: New Writing from Southern African (PEN South Africa, 2006) and in The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things: the Caine Prize for African Writing 2016 (Interlink Books, 2016).

Swimming Partners | Summary

The story is written in the first-person narrative from the point of view of Linda, the protagonist. Right from the time she was born, Linda harboured immense admiration for her elder sister Aisha and held her in high regard. She tried her best to follow in Aisha’s steps at all the times, imitating and following her all the time. Even the thought of being separated from Aisha was unbearable for Linda.

She used to tag behind Aisha even in school, waiting for her classes to end so that they could walk home together, even though she felt tired and hungry. Other children often used to tease her by calling her Aisha’s ‘slave’ or ‘shadow’ but she was unperturbed by this. Even Aisha used to sometimes get irritated with Linda trailing behind her all the time, encroaching her personal space and freedom. But most of the time, she accepted the fact that her sister shall not leave her alone and would thus make plans involving the both of them together.

Since Aisha had a dominating character, she seldom consulted Linda about these plans, and simply informed her of their activities for the day. Linda, who hero-worshipped her, would always agree to whatever she planned without any objection.

One day, after Linda turned seven, Aisha planned to go with her to the stream on their way back from school. This plan made Linda quite nervous because they were not allowed to go to the stream and she feared that they would be punished severely if their mother found out about it. However, Aisha’s presence reassured her and she had full faith that Aisha would not let any trouble come in their way.

Upon reaching the stream Linda was a little apprehensive of going in since she did not know how to swim but Aisha splashed into the water without even a second of hesitation. Irritated at Linda’s reluctance to join her in the water, she asked her to go home if she did not want to swim. Receiving such an ultimatum, Linda finally stepped into the stream, albeit a little scared and nervous. Having Aisha as her partner, splashing in the water alongside her, slowly eliminated all her fear and both sisters had a great time playing in the stream.

However, when they reached home, even though they tried their best to cover up, their mother quickly discovered that they had been to the stream. Infuriated at their misdemeanour she punished them and cancelled supper for them that night. Both the girls were dismayed at this, especially Linda since mother had prepared her favourite dish, but they bore the punishment quietly and decided that they would be extra careful from that day onwards. Not even the punishment could keep them from going to the stream.

They continued going to the stream which they considered their lifelong friend, taking all precautions to hide this from their mother. Soon, they even taught themselves how to swim. For them, the freedom and liberty found amidst the water was more precious and cherishable than anything else.

As the girls grew older, the dynamics in their relationship underwent a shift and they began to see each other more as friends than sisters. This change could be seen during their initiation ceremony, conducted annually in their village for girls who had just hit puberty. And though this ceremony marked their entry into womanhood, it could not put a stop to their swimming which had by then become an integral part of their lives.

As Linda turned 18, a great tragedy struck the family when her father, who was the sole bread-winner for the family, died. Their mother had to now bear the burden of running the household and earning livelihood all by herself. The family was thus pushed into poverty and the girls were soon taken out of school due to lack of money to pay their fees and no other source of support available.

The reality of life finally hit them and they now had to accompany their mother to the maize fields. Working there put an end to their swimming as well as to the sense of freedom that accompanied it.

As they worked in the fields, they discovered that two young farmers had developed an interest in them and wanted to ask for their hand in marriage. This was unacceptable to Aisha who was by then frustrated with their lifestyle. She believed that if she married and settled in the village, she would forever be stuck there, which was absolutely against her desire of making something more out of her life. She therefore decided to leave and run to the city where she planned to take up a job. She tried to persuade Linda to accompany her but all her efforts were in vain. Linda decided to stay on in the village, much against Aisha’s wishes.

This marked the end of their ‘partnership’ as both of them went on their separate ways in life. Linda eventually married Itimu, the farmer who liked her and had two children with him. Though she terribly missed Aisha over this period of three years, her domestic duties kept her much occupied.

Some two years later, Aisha returned to the village and Linda, finding her extremely sick and pale, took her into her house. Her husband had passed away six months ago and hence, Aisha, her childhood partner, made for the best companion. She looked after the ailing Aisha, discovering that she was suffering from AIDS. It is then revealed that Linda too was infected with the same disease, although she had not revealed it to her sister. Thus, destiny had once again thrown the two sisters into the same ‘stream’, uniting these ‘swimming partners’ as they struggled to swim against the currents of the terrible illness that befell them. The only difference was that this time, instead of Aisha supporting Linda, it was the other way round. It was Linda who acted the part of the stronger sister, just like Aisha had done during their childhood.


Swimming Partners | Analysis

The story is set in a rural area, most likely a village in Malawi, as can be inferred from various instances such as the rituals and ceremonies, the occupation of the girls’ parents who are farmers, lack of educational institutions, the food prepared in their household as well as the inclusion of wells and streams in the landscape.

The central characters live a life of poverty, which forms one of the major themes explored in the story. The poignancy of the helplessness caused by lack of money, forcing the girls to give up on their education, as well as their freedom, is well expressed. At the death of their father, the family does not even have the time to mourn the loss for the struggle to make both ends meet is a more pressing issue than their grief. The financial impact of the tragedy overpowers the emotional impact.

Pushed into a life of back-breaking labour, the girls are denied the opportunity to dream of a better future, forced instead to make choices that further trap them into misery.

Aisha, the independent and fearless sister, tries to escape and make a better life for herself in the city, but fails to do so, most likely due to lack of resources and education. Instead of attaining her freedom, she is trapped by the deadly disease AIDS, without any hope of treatment and recovery. Their village probably is too backward and poor to get proper healthcare and medical facilities, as well as awareness about the preventive measures to be taken against diseases.

Linda, though choosing a different path, ends up with the same fate. While her marriage with Itimu leads to an improvement in the financial condition for her and her family, it also leaves her with the same illness as Aisha, without a companion as well since her husband too had succumbed to the same disease. With the death of Itimu, Linda’s children are also left fatherless just like her and Aisha, and the reader is left to wonder whether they too shall suffer the same fate as these sisters, or will the situation turn worse for them since in all likeliness, they would have no one to look after them except probably their old grandmother.

However, the story also throws light on the power of love and loyalty, especially amongst family. Being united with each other gives both sisters hope and comfort during all the troubles- be it against the water of the stream, the punishment meted out to them by their mother, their father’s death or even AIDS. They stick together through all the difficulties in life and this intimacy lends hope to this otherwise sad story.





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