Conversations in community: Here be dragons

26 October 2015
In the same boat: Dragon-boat racer Waleda Salie of the amaBele Belles, South Africa’s only crew of breast cancer survivors. In 2006, the Pink Paddlers, the first World Championship for Breast Cancer Survivors, was held in Singapore.
In the same boat: Dragon-boat racer Waleda Salie of the amaBele Belles, South Africa’s only crew of breast cancer survivors. In 2006, the Pink Paddlers, the first World Championship for Breast Cancer Survivors, was held in Singapore.

In the latest in our series of Conversations in Community, Waleda Salie – former teacher and now departmental manager in the Department of Finance and Tax – talks about the ancient sport of dragon-boat racing and surviving breast cancer.

There’s a stiff south-easter whipping up cloud on the Table; only the mountain’s north-west flank is exposed. But between the sleek hulls of luxury boats and the Clock Tower in the V&A Basin the water is broken only by the wake of dragon boats.

In one, Waleda Salie is braced, feet wedged against the seat in front. She digs deep into the water, stretching far forward and slightly outboard, her fixed-blade paddle lifting and plunging in tight rhythm to the drumbeat from the bow.

In her neon-pink amaBele Belles club top, she is accustomed to the rigours, the sights and sounds, the harbour patina of seal guano, fish and diesel oil, and the tang of iodine and salt in the air.

Waleda is in esteemed company. Breast cancer survivors make up the amaBele Belles crew. Paddling helps with lymphedema, the result of lymph gland removal, which can cause swollen arms.

“I’m not a good swimmer. The first time I went on the water I told them, ‘If the boat rolls, you save me first!’” she says.

But the sleek fibreglass structures, scraped regularly to remove the drag of barnacles and marine muck, are as sturdy as their ancient teak counterparts first put to water on Donting Lake along China’s Yangtze River over 2 000 years ago.

Unlike the demonic, fearsome dragons of European lore, Chinese dragons are water deities. The dragon is also one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the only mythical creature among them – believed to have ruled the water on Earth in the seas, rivers and lakes; and in the sky, in the mist, rain and clouds. The annual dragon-boat-racing festival – Duan Wu – is linked to the rice-planting season and coincides with the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month.

Waleda and her amaBele Belles mainly race distances of 500 metres; but in China, crews number as many as 80 and distances can extend to over two kilometres.

The diagnosis

It was six years ago that Waleda found a lump in her breast. Her mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 49, only 18 months after diagnosis. The youngest of her mother’s five children was nine.

Waleda’s first reaction to her diagnosis was: what now?

Her husband Aslam’s response brought her to earth.

“So, what are we going to do about this? What are our options?” he asked the doctor with characteristic pragmatism and concern.

When her luxuriant hair fell out as a result of chemotherapy, he suggested she shave it off (bravely, she did. “I saved lots on shampoo and blow-drying!”). On her off days, he cooked and did chores. He took her for various treatments and even paddled alongside her in the dragon boat.

Among the amaBele Belles she found women who’d navigated their own sea of uncertainty.

“Our experiences are all unique; no-one’s diagnosis is the same.”

And with them she shared what dragon-boat racing fosters – camaraderie, strength and endurance.

“We’ve been there.”

It took some time to get fit and into the strenuous routine.

Sometimes, paddling in the rain or on down days, she was comforted by the thought: “I’ve been through worse. Nothing beats chemo.”

“When I was first diagnosed, Aslam encouraged me to seek lessons from my experiences.”

And things have changed.

“I’m more patient, less concerned with the trivial, more intent on living in the moment.”

Waleda also believes in paying it forward. She’s very aware that October is Breast Cancer Month and that for the amaBele Belles racing their dragon boat on the dark sea, survival is found first in the depths.

“One of the things I’ve adopted from my survivor sisterhood is the ABC of life: attitude, belief and choice. And then it becomes your mindset.”

Of her own unchartered journey, Waleda is upbeat. She’s learnt that much: healthy thinking and living are the way forward, and learning how to find three things each day to be grateful for.

Today it’s her life, her husband and her job at UCT where she’s worked for 12 years.

She loves sewing and gardening, especially the greens (and reds) used in traditional Cape cooking; coriander (dhanya), curry leaves and chillies.

You may find her visiting the past at the District Six Museum (she was a Phillips before she became a Salie, and the Phillips family was relocated to Kensington), but more likely she’ll be with Aslam in the bundu, on a 4x4 trail in the mountains with a tent or on their 650cc Suzuki bike.

That’s how they like it – big spaces and bigger skies.

“Don’t phone me, I’ll phone you,” she jokes.

Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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26 Oct 2015

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