My time in Maputo, Mozambique, was coming to an end. I had been based there for several months to work toward the launch of the Geotourism Development Foundation (GDF), a not-for-profit organisation committed to elevating travel as a force for good. Then I was due to travel by motorbike to Malawi via Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe. My purpose was, in two weeks time, to meet with The Responsible Safari Company (RSC), a local tour operator in Malawi with which I had become well acquainted due to their active engagement with and strong advocacy of community-based tourism in Malawi.
I would spend a day with them, to experience firsthand three of four initiatives that would benefit from a tourism development project, to be supported by the GDF, that would improve the RSC’s ability to guide visitors to community initiatives. This in turn would aid local community groups by bringing in additional revenue through tourism.
In collaboration with the RSC, each grassroots community initiative had recognised that tourism could be a beneficial source of income that did not involve forsaking the needs of their local communities. The RSC, with their thoughtful and considerate approach, would provide a critical support: connecting these interesting and diverse local initiatives with the global travel market.
The ‘win-win-win’ benefits were evident: The local groups would enjoy a new way of making ends meet and forging meaningful bonds with discerning travellers; visitors would gain the kinds of unique insights that can only come from meeting with a local community and learning about their lives; and the RSC could expand their operations in line with their sustainable and responsible tourism practices.
Nchima Paper Making Trust
I was warmly greeted by Chimwemwe and Andrew of the RSC, in whose company I left Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city. Our first stop was the Nchima Paper Making Trust, where Dickson Chaona and his team have developed an inventive means of raising funds for their local community: They collect waste paper and recycle it by hand, and the new paper they create is then sold for arts and crafts at the local market. Cardboard is recycled too and used to make fire briquettes, a welcome alternative to charcoal for cooking.
When we arrived, Dickson was stirring a thick, sloppy soup of broken-down paper, water and starch. He explained to me the benefit of RSC’s visits. “It is great that they bring foreign visitors to come and see us. Raising money from these visits means that we can support more and more children in the community. These are children whose families can’t afford the school fees and without our support would not have access to any education.”
He then offered me the oversized pestle and asked if I’d like to have a go at mixing. “Our guests always enjoy giving it a try and they always buy our gift cards after our demonstration as well. A portion of the proceeds come to us, so that we make a small living too.”
FOMO Orphan Daycare Centre
Next we headed further south into the countryside, infamous for its mountainous outcrops and exquisite patchwork quilt of tea fields. It looked divine as the sun glistened on the silvery leaves. We were heading to FOMO, an orphan daycare centre in the Mulanje district. As we arrived at one of the 13 centres, we were met by a flurry of feet as all the children rushed together and broke into huge smiles and song. It was quite a welcome, one that I doubt I’ll ever forget!
We then moved inside for a display of traditional song and dance. I was thoroughly enjoying the performance; the kids’ agility and rhythm was breathtaking. But I couldn’t help thinking that some visitors might feel a little uncomfortable with the display.
“Do you think this might be regarded as a little exploitative?” I asked FOMO manager Zoe Nthala. “Well you should ask the kids. The fact is, this is what they love to do and practice for fun, every day. Traditional song and dance is a big part of Malawian culture, and the children just love having people to perform to!”
Our FOMO tour then moved on to a health centre, driving school, tailoring school and computer lab. All of these facilities are available to the disadvantaged children in the region, a staggering total of 4000 of them. Each child can receive a basic daily meal, enough clothes to cover their back and a scholarship covering the cost of their school fees.
“How do you manage to do so much?” I asked. “We do a lot with very little and it’s a real community effort. We help each other, grow our own maize to feed ourselves and we waste nothing,” said Zoe. “We rely solely on private donations and we are so grateful for the support of RSC. Not only do they bring paying visitors to us, whose contributions go a long way, but they also arrange for their guests to bring clothes, school equipment, toys, etc. We all like having visitors come and meet us, and they always seem to have a good time too.”
Nancholi Youth Organisation
Our last stop was at a community tourism initiative on the outskirts of Blantyre recently established by local nongovernmental organisation, the NAYO (Nancholi Youth Organisation) centre, and made possible with guidance from both the RSC and the NAYO centre. I met the management team, who provided an informative introduction to the work that they were undertaking to help the community and area’s most vulnerable residents, particularly those suffering from health problems. They shared their ambitious plans, noting that financing was, as usual, the principal problem. The appeal of sustainable revenue from tourism was a welcome alternative to hit-and-miss grant funding.
I was accompanied on a visit of the facility by a trained volunteer, who invited me to meet some of the program’s beneficiaries. This included a chat with an HIV patient who was benefitting from some home-based care. She explained to me the difficulties of coping with the disease that affects so many people in Malawi as well as the wider region. The help she was receiving from NAYO was vital, as she could not afford to travel to the hospital; in addition, as a widow, she struggled to look after her family.
It was a powerful and moving moment for me. Despite such a heart-wrenching encounter, it was reassuring to know that she and others in the neighbourhood in a similar position might be receiving some assistance. But how many others go without? How many more people could be helped if more travellers visited the project? It put into perspective just how beneficial a $25 tour fee can really be.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
As we made our return journey after a fascinating and inspiring day, I continued to pepper my hosts, Chimwemwe and Andrew, with questions. Their enthusiastic and informed responses never faltered.
“We are very passionate about working with these communities. It is vital that the benefits of tourism reach the people of Malawi and we can directly achieve this by running tourism initiatives with grassroots organisations,” commented Chimwemwe. “It’s fantastic to share this unique side of Malawi with visitors. We are very excited about starting our GDF project because this will allow us to share the benefits even further.”
I couldn’t agree more. Looking forward, more than ever, to the launch of the GDF, I also anticipate hearing from others about what I know will be their most memorable day in Malawi.