Responsible Tourism in The Gambia

16 Apr

Mandina Lodge

It was Christmas Day in 1992 when James English, who had been out partying all night with his nephew Lawrence Williams, saw the piece of land on a bend in the Mandina River that he knew was the place he had been looking for all his life. “I said to Lawrence,” he said, “’this is it. I’ve found it. I’ve what I was looking for.’”

A tributary of the Gambia River, the Mandina was thickly lined with mangroves and wound its way through high canopy rainforest that had remained untouched over the years. It had longed been considered “the devil’s land” by the local Mandinka, said English, so no one had ever settled, farmed or even hunted there. The pair bought four acres from the Sane clan, only to find a year later that much of it had been cut down by refugees from Casamance in Senegal and others fleeing various West African conflicts, in order to grow rice.

English said he was once told by a medium in Alaska that he was a man destined to have a lot of space around him and a lot of people working for him. But even more uncanny was the reaction of the local people when they expressed their concern over the cutting. Their legends had it that some day two Englishmen would come and look after their forests, and they now wanted them to become custodians not only of their own four acres but another thousand.

They told us, he said, “that we were expected. For us, it was like a joke, at the beginning, but when we heard from the marabouts and people that we were expected, all of a sudden it dawned on us. We began to realize then that this was quite serious.”

The pair’s original plan was to set up a backpackers camp on their four acres, something that would allow them to keep indulging in their really quite remarkable passion for constant travel. For most of his life, James worked in construction for three months a year and spent the rest of the it spending all he had earned traveling the world. The responsibility of being custodians of 1000 acres of forest was “a nightmare,” said English. “I lost a lot of sleep over it.” Yet that was how both uncle and nephew, originally from the quiet London suburb of Wimbledon, ended up building an extraordinary five-star hotel, and setting up a whole series of environmental projects in Makasutu.
A sandy three kilometer road leads into Makasutu from the highway just outside the town of Brikhama, past enormous orchards of mango and cashew trees. Once through the gate to the lodge itself, steeples of thatch rise almost magically over the river landscape, and pathways wind through gardens of palm and Senegalese cherry trees, past the bar, a restaurant and the swimming pool to a series of docks leading to the Lodge’s four floating dwellings. Three more lofty brick houses sit in gardens a few metres away from the river. That makes for just eight rooms, which are fully booked all winter, said accountant Baba Suaa, and have been almost since the Lodge opened for business.

In spite of the solar panels and compost toilets, this is definitely not a case of Survivor: The Gambia. Guests are provided with their own waitress, chambermaid and guide for the length of their stay. Some fifty people work at the lodge, others run a nearby craft market or grow produce to supply the Lodge, which has made subsistence farming no longer necessary for them and their families.

But it has not only been through jobs that the villagers of Makasutu have been convinced of the importance of environmental preservation. What we’re trying to do now is to create educational programs where local people are actually informed about diversity,” said Lawrence Williams. Along with planting 20,000 trees and digging 70 wells, they have done seminars, created the Makasutu Wildlife Trust, and persuaded the U.K.-based Eden Project to come down and do a ‘Gardens for Life’ project as well.

“You’ve got to create something new,” said Williams. “If their livelihood is cutting trees down and you create some kind of tourism venture, they can work through that make money without having to cut trees down.”

Now the project has expanded to include anther 750 acres, encompassing the Makasutu Cultural Forest, wetlands and two other forest reserves. English and Williams want to build more wooden tree-house rooms and have brought 14 neighbouring villages on board. Their idea is to find some kind of money-generating enterprise for each.

“We’re looking at all sorts of things,” said Williams, “something different in each of the fourteen villages.” So far their ideas include making brickets for cooking fuel using forest debris, a fruit drying plant, a fish farm, a glass-recycling business, and even a bio-fuel generator for the waste from the hotel rooms. What’s more, each village will have its own community forest park.

Williams and English are now ardent promoters of what is being called ‘Responsible Tourism,’ a vision of travel that goes well beyond the beach holiday and bit of local shopping, to instead search for ways for developing world societies to reap more from the tourism industry than they have n the past, as well as curbing its often notorious devastation of local landscapes in favour of Lego-block style, all-inclusive hotel resorts.

As a result of their and the villagers’ many efforts, birds and wildlife thrive in the area. While there it was difficult for me to chose my favourite moment: floating in the pool under the flock of red-beaked fire finches on the overhanging branches of a kole tree? Walking through the high-canopy rainforest, listening to the sounds of baboons? Or simply sitting on my verandah at dusk, watching the swallows swoop and dive over the tranquil flow of a bend in the Mandina River.

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