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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information : Nkwichi
From : Africa Geographic
by ANISHA SHAH