Learning to Freedive with South Africa's First Black Freediving Instructor : Invisibilia After months of working from home and retreating from the world, Kia Miakka Natisse is stuck - in her house, and in her head. In an attempt to break out of the funk, she's searching for wisdom at the bottom of the ocean with South Africa's first Black freediving instructor, Zandile Ndhlovu.

Freedom Diving

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By the end of 2021, I felt stuck. The pandemic had taken its toll on me. As pandemic lotteries go, I was lucky. I moved to my hometown, Buffalo, N.Y., found a nice sunny apartment to hide in by myself. Though it was far from all my friends, it was close to family, and it felt safer than the big cities I was used to. I made voice diaries narrating my new normal.

Here on Kia island. I mean, it's population one, but it's also population fun.

I learned how to install braids in my hair, how to make duck confit.

I've been wearing the f*** out of this little pan. It's holding on for dear life.

I bought roller skates and began to slowly roll up and down the hallway of my third-floor apartment in kneepads, elbow pads, wrist pads, stiff as a board, heavy as a rock, waving my arms around like an inflatable at a car dealership.


I'm in the house skating because, personally, I find it really embarrassing and overwhelming to be so bad in public. I mean, I'm really not trying to bust my ass at the Rainbow Rink. But after months and months of being in the house, the couch had a permanent divot from my butt. My voice diaries got more and more mundane, narrating the petty drama outside my window.

Looks like some sort of pit mix. It's adorable - beautiful dog, big-bodied, not trained at all.

Most evenings, I end up stretched out on my couch, propped on a pillow in my PJs, scrolling Instagram and crushing candies on my phone. I was sequestered in this little apartment island to feel safe, but that came at a cost. I felt disconnected, not only from other people, but also myself.

What are - who are dogs without humans, you know? Once again, I want liberation. I'm tired of watching the world behind the glass alone. I'm damn near collecting dust.

Woof, woof, woof.

I'm Kia Miakka Natisse, and this is INVISIBILIA from NPR.

Hi, I just got nervous. It's been a while. Also, I haven't talked to you in this new location.

I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, with two suitcases and my emotional support roller skates.

It's been weird. I feel like an egg yolk.

I'm here to visit some friends. Plus, February in this part of the world is summertime, which means no seasonal depression. Thank God. Cape Town has beaches - lots of them. I usually head to the beach when I feel disconnected or overwhelmed, even if it's just in my mind. My favorite beaches are those calm, sandy, lazy ones with gentle waves, you know? Cape Town beaches aren't like that. The waves are very aggressive. The water is very cold even in the summer. One time, I thought I could be cute in the water, and I almost lost my top.

It was a struggle. There were rocks. It was not comfortable.

But there is a certain thrill of being near the ocean. Am I going to get swallowed by a wave? Will I get swept out to sea? Will something weird brush up against me and, you know, bite me, sting me, kill me? But also, the feeling of being in water is just so...


ZANDILE NDHLOVU: When I found the ocean in 2016, it just - that deep feeling of belonging, that deep, deep place where - that life was OK and everything was OK.

NATISSE: Zandile Ndhlovu was the first name to pop up when I Googled Black diving instructor South Africa. I figured that if I wanted to get into the ocean, I'd need some help.

NDHLOVU: She remains the one place where I can be true, I can be free, and I can unburden my shoulders because she's big enough to hold all of me. She's big enough to hold my past, my present, my future. She's big enough to hold every single one of my struggles.

NATISSE: Zandile's claim to fame is being South Africa's very first Black female free-diving instructor. She even calls herself the Black Mermaid and kind of looks like one with long electric blue hair.

NDHLOVU: I am a Black woman with the biggest smile you could ever imagine in your life. Like, you could wrap it behind your ears. And if you had to know me as a human - wild joy, wild happiness, lover of life, lover of humans, lover of the human existence.

NATISSE: When Zandile found free-diving, she found more than just the ocean.

What changed for you?

NDHLOVU: I inherited the universe.

NATISSE: That's a massive change.


NATISSE: Like, oh, go on. Go on, Zandile. How did you know?

NDHLOVU: (Laughter).

NATISSE: So I decided to sign up for Zandile's free-diving course. I'm going to learn how to free-dive. Pray for me, y'all. We're coming back after this break.


NATISSE: Dive class Day 1.

NDHLOVU: Sure. What a beautiful day. Are the others here at the moment? Do you know?

NATISSE: There's three of us in the class, me and a German couple on holiday. We start outside at a picnic table near a vegan cafe. The sun is scorching, a typical Cape Town summer's day. I'm huddled under a bucket hat with a towel because, oops, I forgot my sunscreen.

NDHLOVU: Free diving requires a level of mental preparation. Everything is a question of your ability to handle the situation if anything goes wrong.

NATISSE: Free diving is like scuba diving, but...

NDHLOVU: Your body is the tank.

NATISSE: It's just you and your lungs in the water.

NDHLOVU: It feels like you are going into this light every single time you dive. And...

NATISSE: With Zandi, the goal I'm pushing towards is depth diving. I'm trying to learn to swim deep into the ocean while holding my breath. There's this thing that happens to you as you're descending in the water called the free fall.


NDHLOVU: It feels like you are flying and you are everything and everything is you. That's how the free fall feels.

NATISSE: When you're free diving, the first 30 feet of your dive requires so much work for you. You have to swim really forcefully to get your air-filled body down into the sea.

NDHLOVU: The free fall starts. And all you hear is the rope.

NATISSE: You'd be attached to a rope attached to a buoy at the surface. And you could use that rope to pull yourself down into the water. But once you reach about 30 feet, you can relax your body, as the Earth's gravity begins to catch you.

NDHLOVU: And you just hear your hand, (mimicking free fall sound). You've stopped finning. You've stopped everything else. It's almost like you transcend. You leave Earth.


NDHLOVU: And so as we go into depth work, I think there's so much there for us to figure out what is in our own heads. For me, it was clearing out all the stories that I grew up with.


NATISSE: Zandi grew up far from the ocean in Soweto, over 350 miles from the coast. She was born under apartheid, South Africa's legalized system of racial segregation. They divided everything by race - at one point, even the beaches.

NDHLOVU: You know, many people always ask me, weren't you afraid and aren't you afraid of water today? And I'm always like, there were many things that could kill you then. Like, this was just one of the things by which you could go.

NATISSE: On top of that, the local pool costs money that her mom didn't have. The few times Zandi did get a chance to play in the water...

NDHLOVU: Of course, you know, when the water's at your ankle, you're doing great. When the water is at your knees, why are you trying to kill yourself?

NATISSE: How did you learn how to swim?

NDHLOVU: (Laughter) This is a good question. It starts by me drowning.


NATISSE: Apartheid ended in 1994. And not long after, Zandi went to her first multiracial school. She was in sixth grade.

NDHLOVU: They had these PE lessons. And on this day, you know, it was a pool day. And I'll never forget - Ms. Berkeley's (ph) like, everybody, jump in. And we all jump in (laughter). And...

NATISSE: She hesitated. And a friend noticed, offered Zandi a ride on her back through the water. At some point, her friend turned in the water and Zandi fell off.

NDHLOVU: I don't think she meant to, like, leave me there. And so when she got to the other side, it was like, where the hell is Zandi? And, yeah...

NATISSE: She was at the bottom of the deep end and had to be pulled out.

NDHLOVU: It's just one of the things that could happen on a Black body on any other day. But I'll never forget Ms. Berkeley because she was the one who was over my body just like, Zandile, Zandile. And I was just like, and this is how we die (laughter).

NATISSE: Somehow that didn't scare her off.

NDHLOVU: We never went for, like, formal swimming lessons ever. But my sister and I, at a point, we felt so confident because we could - (non-English language spoken). We could, like, not drown in the water. And so we joined the swimming team. Needless to say, we were always the ones who were last to come in. And everyone would always be like, why are you doing white people things?


NATISSE: My water story is a lot like Zandi's. I grew up far from the ocean, had people in my family who couldn't swim because of racism and a near-death water experience when I was a kid. But just like Zandi, I also have a love for water. Watching videos of Zandi freely gliding across the ocean floor made it easier to imagine myself in the water. Plus, I wasn't scared to ask all the silly and specific questions about what might happen to my body in the water. What about my hair? What if I'm on my period?

NDHLOVU: You are never, ever, like - gallons of blood out, so you can always dive when you are on your period.

NATISSE: Back in the class, we transition from the picnic table to an outdoor pool, where we're going to practice for the ocean. I stand in the shallow end wearing a full-body wetsuit with a mask and a snorkel. Zandi sits at the edge of the pool, presiding over the water. She's guiding us on the No. 1 skill we need for free diving, controlling your breath.

NDHLOVU: OK. I want you to focus on a big breath as you go in. I want you to focus on the breath going into your belly and into your chest, nice, big breath.

NATISSE: I'm holding onto the edge of the pool, breathing deeply, waiting for my excited and nervous heart rate to slow down a bit.

NDHLOVU: And then when you get ready to take your last breath, it's a big exhale - not a hyperventilating exhale, just a gentle exhale.


NATISSE: I slowly stretch out, face down into the water.


NATISSE: From above. I can hear Zandi gently coaching me while I watched the sunlight dance on the bottom of the pool.

NDHLOVU: Nice. Nice. Beautiful. You're doing absolutely incredible - incredible.

NATISSE: I let my fingers go from the edge and float.

NDHLOVU: You're right by the wall. You're well supported.

NATISSE: Lose myself a little bit. Feel the water moving around me, the tiny air bubbles escaping the gaps in my wetsuit, my own weightlessness, the emptiness of it all.


NDHLOVU: I'm going to count you down. Five, four - we've got this - three, two, one. Beautiful. Wow.


NDHLOVU: Beautiful.


NDHLOVU: Yeah. How did that feel? Where did you go?

NATISSE: I slipped away for a hot second.

NDHLOVU: Where did you go? You did (laughter).

NATISSE: Like, and then I heard your voice. You're like I - you just - it was just a brief moment. Like - I, like, let go for a second.

NDHLOVU: You held it so beautifully. Well done. That was 1:38.



NATISSE: One minute 38 seconds. Zandi seems really proud of me, and I am, too, to be honest. I didn't know I could hold my breath that long. Never tried. I feel like a little kid getting a gold star from her favorite teacher. But once it's time to let go of the wall and actually swim in fins, it's not good.

You know, them fins, long as - I was kind of panicking. Ugh, it was bad. At one point, I think I kicked her in her head 'cause I couldn't get down deep enough. So I feel like I'm in way over my head (laughter). She made it look so easy and beautiful.


NATISSE: Hold your breath. We'll be right back after the break.


NATISSE: Dive class, Day 2. The next morning, I wake up to a message from Zandi.

NDHLOVU: I was thinking about it - well, I was thinking about it today and last night, actually. It's absolutely incredible to see how you are able to go to this meditative place. And I hope you trust that feeling and that place when you go into depth today. See you later.


NATISSE: Morning.

We meet up at a dive shop for gear. When I walk in, I look for Zandi, and though it's busy and full of people, she's easy to spot - the only other Black person in the building. As soon as I find her, a white lady at the front desk yells her name.



NATISSE: Tells Zandi and me to sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, just have a seat. Make yourself cozy. I don't want people just walking around.

NDHLOVU: All right.

NATISSE: Hey. How are you doing?

NDHLOVU: Hi. I'm all right. How are you?


We rent our gear and make a plan for the day. Zandi offers to give me a ride to the pool. She walks barefoot through the parking lot to her car. It's a white Volvo truck and the nicest car I've been in since arriving to Cape Town.

NDHLOVU: You know, as a city girl, I was working in corporate, earning big money, you know, so cool, going to corporate presentations. You know, I was that girl.

NATISSE: As we drive to the pool, Zandi tells me about who she was before freediving, and it sounds so different. She had a husband. She was a pro mountain biker. And she had this really intense corporate job that she was also really good at.

NDHLOVU: To have been able to find myself in a place where I'm working a really good job, getting good money, owning a house, being able to provide for not only my current family but my entire family - it was incredible.

NATISSE: Zandi was working 18-hour days.

NDHLOVU: The more corporate got intense in my body when I was really battling the subtle, not so subtle racism that is - that anxiety just grew because my heart was saying, I want out. I don't want this. And that was intense because there was a point where I thought the world could hear my heart. It was beating so loud all the time.

Yes, I've been the strong Black independent woman my whole life. I've done what everyone wants me to do.


NDHLOVU: And then I was like, I want the ocean. And I moved to Cape Town. And I'm still figuring it out, but no one's died.


NDHLOVU: So we're all OK.



NDHLOVU: I felt free. I felt like, for the first time, I didn't have the pressure of needing to be anything or be anywhere or do - there was no thousand lists in my head. It was just this moment. And it was the final arrival to this place where I knew that I would need to find a way to be here.

NATISSE: Zandi got out of the corporate world, but some of those problems followed her, like what happened at the dive shop earlier.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, just have a seat. Make yourself cozy. I don't want people just walking around.

NDHLOVU: All right. Hi.

NATISSE: I walked in, and almost immediately, we were singled out. Why did that woman call us out like that? She didn't tell anyone else to sit down. There were white people walking all over the place.

What's my one little Black body going to do to this space? You think I'm going to extend my leg and trip somebody on purpose? Like, come on.

Zandi seemed OK with it, so maybe it's not a big deal?

I know a racism when I see one, and that felt like a racism.

The lady had bad vibes.

I'm in a completely foreign country, and I know nothing of the racial politics in South Africa...

Maybe that lady was having a bad day. Some people...

Look; I don't identify the thing as racism. I want to be in the ocean right now. I don't want to be thinking about this.

Don't rock the boat.

We were the brownest - in there, and we stuck out. I was getting in my head about it, but then Zandi brought it up in the car. Turns out, she was stuck on it too.

NDHLOVU: We all go because that's where you can hire gear, but it can be in between for me. But it's just because maybe I'm just young.

NATISSE: I mean, why do you think?

NDHLOVU: I don't know. I feel like the customer service could be better.

NATISSE: Like, maybe since they have a monopoly, it's like we're going to treat you however we want...


NATISSE: ...'Cause where else are you going to go?

NDHLOVU: Yeah. So there's actually another center here.

NATISSE: Listening to it now, it's like we're talking in code, trying to protect each other or something.

NDHLOVU: I think it's just always realizing that this has got nothing to do with me, but sometimes my skin holds the weight of it all, right? And then I get home, and my skin is tired because it walks in everywhere, and it is told that it doesn't belong. And so you have to speak up for it to be able to exist in that space. And so there are days of fatigue where I actually just - I message my friends, and I'm like, my skin is tired.

NATISSE: She told me she's had problems with that dive shop before. Zandi remembers a particularly bad day when she had four Black students.

NDHLOVU: We just had, like, a series of things that morning. And I just remember as the course finished, I just got into my car, and I cried. I must have cried for an hour. It was horrible. And so it's somehow like a cry of all the violence that your body has taken. And you say, oh, it's OK. Oh, just keep it moving. Oh. And then one day your body is like, not today, and you fall apart because it's actually exhausting to continuously have to say that I'm human, too, and I'm equal, too, and I deserve to be here, too. And you don't speak to me like that. And why are you pointing out my hair? And why are you pointing out my body? And why - whew. It can be exhausting. It's not can be exhausting. It is exhausting.

NATISSE: Good morning. It's my first time talking. Good morning. It's 6:40 a.m. here. The sun is rising. I'm supposed to go free diving in the ocean today.

The day we finally get to dive into the ocean came after many days of bad weather, plus a wet suit mix-up, which meant the German couple in our class couldn't come. So it was just me and Zandi. I took a Uber to the ocean. But of course it dropped me off in the wrong place, so I had to walk along a stretch of highway that wraps around Table Mountain. Eleven-minute walk - that's not bad to me.


NATISSE: Not them honking me, though. Oh, I need to put on sunscreen. A fancy white Volvo rolls up next to me. You see Zandi?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She's probably coming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Feel like she's tired, don't you?


NATISSE: But look, I've got a ride.


NDHLOVU: How are you?

NATISSE: I'm good. How are you?

NDHLOVU: Good. As I came down, I'm like, I think that's where she would have gone. So this dive spot...


NDHLOVU: ...Is called Justin's...





NATISSE: There's lots of anxieties. But I'm mostly - I know that's just like all fear-based stuff. That's probably not fact-based. And I definitely trust you. That was one of my meditations of like, I know Zandi's not going to put me in danger.

NDHLOVU: Absolutely not.

NATISSE: So it's more so just like overcoming the inner narratives about where I do...


NATISSE: ...And do not belong...


NATISSE: ...You know, and where I can and cannot be welcomed.


NATISSE: Zandi and I stand on the edge of the water on a rocky beach. Sunbathers watches as we suit up in our full-body wet suits, mask, snorkels and those really, really long fins. To get into the ocean, Zandi says we have to crawl over the rocks on our bellies because you can't just walk in with three-foot-long fins. She's swimming in front of me, pushing a rubber tire buoy. I trailed behind, struggling over the rocks.

Ooh, heaven, I need a hug.

The ocean starts to receive us. There's a kelp forest, these really long, golden-brown stalks of kelp that grow up out of the ocean floor. They kind of tangle around me. I'm pushing them away, but also holding on to them when the ocean rocks me too hard. Zandi sees a blue plastic bag tangled in the kelp. She fishes it out, throws it in the buoy to throw away later.


NATISSE: We reach an open patch of ocean, the water nearly 15 feet deep - bobbing in the water. Zandi challenges me to dive. I pull on a kelp stalk to help me, my body swimming deeper and deeper. The water's cloudy. It's hard to see. It feels like a confrontation. What's at the bottom of the ocean? Where does this end? But finally, I get there. I see the ocean floor. It's just water rippling on the sand. I look over and see a bird. It's diving, too, paddling around under the water, maybe looking for food - not finding anything either.


NATISSE: I'm going to be processing that dive for a moment.

NDHLOVU: Yeah. And your body in the water, right?

NATISSE: And then just another left at the end of this.

NDHLOVU: Forest lodge.

NATISSE: Yes. It’s the next one. Right here would be perfect. All right. Thank you so much, Zandi.

NDHLOVU: Only a pleasure. Take care. Have a beautiful day. And I hope you travel with the water today.

NATISSE: Yes, absolutely. Same to you. All righty. Thanks a lot. See you later.

Later when I'm at the Airbnb on my couch, I text Zandi, I can still feel the ocean. I send her the emoji with swirly eyes. She texted me back, a big, beautiful feeling, two heart emojis.


NATISSE: Eventually, me and my roller skates returned home to that butt divot in my couch. I'm glad I tried free diving. But I didn't inherit the universe like Zandi did. And that's OK. Her words stuck with me anyway.

NDHLOVU: Here in South Africa, we've got this thing that's called a room divider. And inside the room divider is, like, the best cutlery that no one gets to eat out of, right? But it's known in all Black communities that you don't touch anything that's in the room divider. So you will always live off the chipped plates. And I think, ultimately, that's what we've done with life. We've said, there's the most precious thing - but, also, understandably and rightfully so because Black lives for a very long time did not matter. And so the idea of our preservation and the keeping of our lives and our bodies is an important thing. So we don't actively go seeking out places that feel like they might take our lives. But the hard part of that is that all our lives are these seen things through the glass that just gather dust, and no one ever touches them. And so their full existence is not explored - the beauty and the touch of the glass, the crystal glass, the beauty of drinking out of that glass, the health of drinking out of a really beautiful glass.


NDHLOVU: We don't really get to fully experience our lives. We just get to observe it from afar, and every so often, shine the glass. So it's the work that I think we have to do.


NATISSE: All right.

All right. I'm here in Rainbow Rink. I already saw that there is a cop at the door checking bags because that's the world we live in.

Since coming home, I've committed myself to roller skating.


NATISSE: How you doing?

I like the people.

Hey. I love your hair. It looks great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Beginners, you got to take it to the middle - beginners lane.

NATISSE: I like learning new things in my body. Oh, we got some choreography going at the edge of the rink. This one night at the rink, adult night - Black people night - it felt like the place was on fire.


NATISSE: I mean, folks were just locked in, moving with an energy.

This man is conducting the floor.


NATISSE: (Singing) True playa' for real.

Ooh. It smell loud (ph).

I happily swam in it, floating in when I could.


NATISSE: He's really playing all the jams for me tonight.

Of course...

My butt is going to be hurtin’.

But you can't float unless you're willing to fall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Have a good night.

NATISSE: You, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Boy, you could cut it with a knife.

NATISSE: Yeah, you could. It's hot as hell. It's beautiful night, though. You, too. (Singing) You...


NATISSE: This episode was written and reported by me, Kia Miakka Natisse. Produced and sound design by Phoebe Wang. Additional production by Ariana Gharib Lee. INVISIBILIA is also produced by Yowei Shaw, Abby Wendle and Andrew Mambo, with additional support this season from Lauren Beard, David Gutherz, Clare Marie Schneider, Lee Hale and Nic M. Neves. Sarah Long was our intern for this season. Our supervising editor is Neena Pathak. Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer. Fact-checking by Katie Daugert and Ayda Pourasad, mastering by James Willetts.

Additional thanks to Brianna Scott, Bethel Habte and Gabriella Bulgarelli. And a very special thanks to Haven, Winnie and Kyle Polk. Love y'all all, from Detroit to South Africa and back again. Legal and standards support from Micah Ratner and Tony Cavin. Our technical director is Andie Huether. Our deputy managing editor is Shirley Henry. Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. Theme and original music by Infinity Knives. Additional music in this episode by Ramtin Arablouei, Physical Fitness, Elizabeth Delise, William Cashion, Peals and Bank Robber Music. For behind-the-scene photos from my time in the water, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/invisibilianewsletter. Swim you later. You like that?

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