HOW A REMOTE MOZAMBICAN LODGE
FROM A CURSE INTO A BLESSING
Most people don’t know this place exists. It’s a glorious collection of bays, headlands and white sandy beaches along the shores of Lake Malawi, which here in Mozambique is called Lake Niassa. Life is peaceful in the 16 small villages that dot the shore, but it wasn’t always this way. Many villagers fled this area during Mozambique’s brutal civil war, some moving to neighbouring Malawi or Tanzania seeking better living conditions. The war officially ended in 1992, and those who returned walked into extreme poverty.
This is one of the last true wildernesses of Africa, and it’s almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. The Nyanja people who live here have been isolated throughout history. Situated far in the north of Mozambique, and separated from the rest of the country by dense forest and vast wilderness, there is minimal infrastructure – less than 17km of paved roads in an area of more than 6,400km2, and only rudimentary education and health facilities. People survive from subsistence farming, fishing and hunting. Historically, the 16 lakeside villages have had minimal contact, not only with the outside world, but even with each other.
At least, that was the case until the eco-luxury Nkwichi Lodge came into being. In 2002, six investors with a background in international aid set up the Manda Wilderness Project (later named the Manda Wilderness Community Trust (MWCT)) to support the local community through sustainable tourism. The brainchild of Patrick and Paul Simkin, the project has ambitious hopes with long-term multi-generational goals.
I take a 45-minute boat ride from Nkwichi Lodge to Mbueca village. From the still waters, a picture-perfect African beach unravels – a sun-drenched golden bay. Kevin, my local guide, helps me jump into the cool shallow waters to a rapturous greeting from curious children.
We walk across the sand through thorny bush and cherry-red plants which, I am told, are ground and dried to be used as coffee. The neatly aligned stacks of bricks drying in the sun, the brick-built local school and a few houses attest to the success of the project’s brick-making initiative. Women casually nursing children and cleaning grains chat peacefully outside their small brick-walled homes. At the school, three brick classrooms are filled with children of varying ages learning Portuguese, maths and science.
This school is a shining example of the trust’s most important initiative. The construction was driven by the villagers, who chose the site, planned the building and supplied most of the labour while the trust helped with materials and skills transfer. Parents and students feel a sense of ownership and immense pride in the school. MWCT also negotiated with the Mozambican government for the deployment of government-employed teachers to the schools.
‘We are proud because we built this school ourselves, for our children and their children,’ beams Zofuna, a father of four.
‘This part of our country desperately needed help and it’s a privilege to be involved in these children’s progression. This project has brought hope and a future. Now people are starting to see the importance of education,’ explains head-teacher Mwajulo.
Asked if all the village elders allow their children to attend school, he says, ‘Attendance is sketchy sometimes but we have to understand survival is the first concern. Children are needed to help with farming at home. But we keep communicating to parents the long-term need for education. And I believe they do understand.’
I find it heartening that the MWCT team is careful never to tell people what to do. Ultimately, it hopes to equip villagers with skills to sustain themselves, and to make their own informed future decisions. To this end, the trust set up a traditional, democratically-elected committee called Umoji, which means ‘as one.’ All local issues are run past the committee for discussion and debate, effectively placing power directly into the hands of the people, while uniting them to work for the greater good. This is local democracy in action, and witnessing it is phenomenal.
Of course, it does mean the trust is sometimes faced with decisions with which it doesn’t necessarily agree. This is blisteringly apparent when the villagers, through Umoji, decided to declare the recently designated 120,000-hectare Manda Wilderness Community Conservation Area (MWCCA) a hunting reserve.
The social development is impressive. Thirteen village schools are now up and running, where previously there were none. The trust has contributed to the building of accommodation for teachers, a boarding house to enable disadvantaged young women to attend school, and a maternity hospital in the largest village, Cobue.
And more than 400 villagers have been taught extensive farming and agriculture techniques to improve family nutrition, and to earn a living by supplying Nkwichi Lodge with fresh produce for guest meals. I can report that these meals are perfectly delicious – think crispy fresh lettuce and sweet juicy tomatoes, spiced butternut soups and sumptuous fresh lake fish. And, of course, the lodge employs only local people, with each salary supporting an estimated 15 family members.
Local MWCT project manager, Richard Stephano Mngulo, helps villagers form proposals and decide which projects to implement. ‘This job is rewarding,’ he says. Because I am a child of the village, and now I see my people have hope for the future and make a change for themselves.’
I ask if everyone is happy with the evolution. ‘At the start, some were unsure,’ he replies. ‘But as they started to see development, they realised that there could be a future for them. Now all 16 village communities are involved with us.’
Explaining how the project has brought together communities that were once segregated, he continues, ‘Every year, we organise a traditional dugout canoe race. Everybody looks forward to it, and people talk and laugh together. The race gets competitive but everyone is in good spirits. It has helped people understand that they have support in each other, in their neighbours.’
I’ve been fortunate to explore more than 80 countries within my niche of emerging destinations. Having visited three different Mozambican lodges in the past eight months, I have found that the properties with locally employed staff seem to go the extra mile. As a traveller, this is why Mozambique ranks highly as one of my favourite spots on the planet, and why it is among the most exciting emerging destinations.
Here, at Nkwichi, the appeal is instant. Hope combines with sheer beauty and authentic luxury. Deserted beaches soaked in sunlight and eternal serenity are backed by lush greenery, tangled forest, wild animals and exotic birdlife. The seclusion is the ultimate seduction. While the isolation was previously a curse for the region, Nkwichi is transforming it into a blessing.
Back to the lodge itself. It’s a little pocket of paradise. Nkwichi runs off renewable energy, and there is no mobile phone signal, internet or anything gadget-related. Guests switch off and live in the moment. The limited connectivity does take some getting used to, as managers Kristina Low and Malcolm Turner learned on their transition from Scotland. But, four years on, the place is clearly a central part of their lives.
‘Nowhere on earth have I seen so many stars,’ says Kristina. ‘It is breath-taking. People often tell us they don’t sleep well at home, or suffer from insomnia. We grin and wait a few days. It’s always the same story. They’re blown away with how well they sleep here, surrounded only by the sounds of nature, and they leave feeling fully recharged. I don’t know if I could ever leave this.’