“We are here today to learn about the topic of ecotourism and discuss the impacts tourism can have on your community,” Chimwemwe began. “Today I want us to interact. I learn from you; you learn from me.”
Chimwemwe Siyabu has worked for The Responsible Safari Co. (RSC) for three years and as she talks to this group of eight community representatives I realise how much she has learnt and how passionately she believes in the future of sustainable tourism in Malawi.
To get to this day, there have been many bumpy village tracks, meetings in chiefs’ houses, traditional dance performances and trial runs. The eight community representatives gathered before Chimwemwe have come together from villages around Southern Malawi to take part in an ecotourism training day. “We wanted you all to meet,” she continues. “We wanted you to hear how inspirational each other are. You are role models in your communities and we want RSC to be a role model for tourism in Malawi.”
Building Community Connections
The day commences with a brief review of the thoughts and concerns of the eight community representatives, including their hopes for their communities – “to get them motivated, to support the ill and orphaned, to work to inspire the youth,” explains Joshua from Nancholi Village. Discussing their plans for local tourism development, we notice that each community representative shares similar hopes and their projects face similar challenges. One of the major challenges for each project is having regular income to support the work. Donor aid is sporadic and often available for only a short period of time, yet activities such as school feeding and home-based care require regular income that can be sustained throughout the year. Every project hopes one day to be self-reliant and use community income-generating activities to ensure the future of their projects.
As each representative takes the floor, it becomes clear to everyone that between us all we have enough passion and determination to solve every development issue in Malawi. Tourism and local economic development in Malawi are inextricably linked, so the questions come thick and fast, with each community project member sharing concerns about unemployment, getting HIV-positive community members access to antiretroviral drugs and even the pros and cons of rural pig farming!
Locally Driven Development
Over the next few hours, Chimwemwe introduces everyone to the permaculture centre in which we chose to hold the event and explains the theory behind ecotourism. In turn, the group members discuss how community-based ecotourism in Malawi can be implemented within their villages. Some of the many creative projects proposed include spending an afternoon with a family on the shores of Lake Malawi, preparing and cooking the local evening meal, taking part in a village banking cooperative in Zomba and learning traditional dance with the children at FOMO in Mulanje.
The group also touches on some of the more challenging aspects of ecotourism development. Joseph, who runs a boatyard on Lake Malawi and has set up a community project with the local village, talks about the negative effects his village has felt from past tourism in the area. “What was happening was not formal. Visitors would just come in and dish out some money, but no one could see any real benefits and our community now is not as welcoming to visitors.”
We discuss how community tourism might impact rural communities. Everyone agrees the first step must be sensitising the community and teaching them about this new model of tourism. “It is important to preserve our culture while also providing tourism services. It is a sensitive subject,” said one representative from Zomba.
Following the discussion, RSC guides Andrew and Osbourne speak about past client experiences and then, I, as RSC Managing Director, wrap up the morning by discussing the ethos of RSC and the benefits of ecotourism for Malawi.
Finding Meaning for Both Guests and Locals
The afternoon session is led by Andrew Kayuni, RSC’s Head Guide, who explains the effects community visits have on RSC clients. He describes how “It is the small things that they always talk about: the women collecting water from the river, the children shelling maize for the evening meal.”
Andrew finishes his session by asking the community members “What inspires you to give your lives to serving your community?” Each project representative speaks of his or her reasons for setting up a community-based organisation. Joy from Zomba describes his experience as an orphaned child, explaining “I know the A-Z of being an orphan. I don’t want other vulnerable children to have similar experiences as me.”
The day finishes with an open discussion of how community tourism could act as an additional income-generating activity. Everyone agrees that, when handled sensitively, this tourism model, where RSC tourists donate to community project funds, offers a chance for everyone in the community to benefit. Visitors are encouraged not to hand out money direct to the community. Instead, RSC charges a set fee for a community visit that has been agreed to in advance. The money is then transferred into the community bank account and the community representative sends an accountability form to explain what the funds are used for. It is very common for visitors to remain in contact with the community once they have returned home and RSC acts as a link between the visitor and the project to enable further support.
For example, Joseph from Lake Malawi describes how a recent visit has paid for two months’ rent of their community project office, while Moses from Blantyre speaks about how a recent RSC visitor donation of medical supplies has helped home-based care volunteers offer free malaria treatment to the sick and elderly.
The success of our first ecotourism training event is perhaps best measured by the comments Chimwemwe and I receive from participants throughout the day:
Moses from Blantyre: “I feel that with RSC we are like family members, we are supported.”
Andrew, RSC Head Guide: “We see the company, clients and myself as a guide trying to responsibly look after the environment and also trying to make tourism reach local communities.”
Joseph from Mangochi: “I have been inspired. I have learnt what the communities’ role is in ecotourism.”
Joy from Zomba: “This day has inspired us to look at involving our communities with the tourism sector. Community members should receive education on how they can become involved in ecotourism.”
Moses from Blantyre: “The training was so good for me. It will help me handle visitors whenever they come to my project.”
Chimwemwe, RSC Project and Travel Consultant: “We are still in the early stages and we have to do the best we can. We are still marketing ourselves. Malawi is still new to ecotourism.”
Kate, RSC owner: “I feel inspired by everyone here today. Thank you for working with us for the past three years. Thank you for your patience and your willingness to try something new.”