How would you describe Chole Mjini in a nutshell?
Six tree houses and one garden house are the essence of Chole Mjini Lodge. In Mafia Island Marine Park, and part of Mafia archipelago, off the coast of East Africa, this responsible tourism lodge offers a tranquil island hideaway where you can enjoy the simple luxuries of star-filled skies, the sound of the waves, and the absence of modern stress. A tropical jungle with overgrown orchards, mangrove forests and huge baobab trees surrounds this wonderful world of its own. The tree houses are made from natural wood and thatch. Inside you’ll find four-poster beds with linens made with fine Egyptian cotton, private showers and dry composting toilets. This is quite an unconventional lodging, but perfect for those who are looking to be in nature and experience what it means to disconnect and have incredible experiences ranging from Swahili culture to world-class diving spots.
Just tell me a little bit about life on the island. How did it all start and how did you end up there?
Well, it happened quite by accident, actually. My wife worked in agricultural aid and was posted to Zanzibar. I went on a fishing and diving trip to Mafia and just happened to be taking a little tour of Chole Island and saw the boats they build and I decided to commission one to take to Zanzibar. In the process, I got to know the island very well. I came to Mafia several times and the district officials started meeting me at the airport when I arrived in a charter airplane, taking me around and showing me properties where they thought I should build a hotel.
We had no intention of ever living there or running a hotel, but it happened because the person who got us into it pulled out after we’d already raised money to start building a primary school and a little clinic. We had raised so many expectations and talked so much to people about what they want to do with their lives, we just didn’t feel that we could stop. So we were stuck, in a way.
It was quite a long way building everything. What is the biggest reward for you?
Well, I think for me the biggest reward is where we’re starting to be now. Just this week I got an email from one of these kids who just passed first year at university. He actually did very well. You can’t really explain that to his parents who didn’t go to school. But he’s so excited about it he emailed us. That’s so amazing.
We built the place entirely by hand with no electricity, no electrical tools. There are fantastic artisans who build boats, but in boats you don’t have any level surfaces. You don’t have parallel surfaces. You don’t need things to be perfectly upright. But for tree houses, you need all of these things. And the Swahili language doesn’t have words for them. In fact, there’s one word that describes everything that’s really geometric, at right angles, parallel, square, vertical, perpendicular, horizontal. The words is ‘sawa’. Unfortunately, ‘sawa’ is also the way that you would respond to say, ‘Okay, right.’ They can have a whole discussion with one word.
What sort of feedback do you get from the guests that stay with you?
Go look on TripAdvisor. You’ll see that we either get a 5 stars or 1 — nothing in between. We’re not mediocre (laughs). We’re totally crap or we’re great.
We’ve never had a marketing budget before. We don’t go out and sell our product to wholesale distributors who then send people here based on their commission. We’ve always worked with just a few operators who really give out a lot of information and deal very closely and directly with their clients. So people get enough information from that kind of operator to make up their own mind whether they want to come or not.
People who tend to come to Chole Mjini are a little bit different. We like to think of them as travellers with money rather than tourists. Because they’re actually interested to eat local food, meet local people and see how local people live, rather than do what they want to do. These people love Chole Mjini. Less than 1% of our guests don’t like it.
What sort of food do you serve at Chole Mjini? What’s typical for Tanzania?
What’s typical for Tanzania... there’s meat, meat and more meat. But Mafia is famous for seafood. It’s famous all over Africa for it. We happen to be in the middle of a fantastic marine park where local people are still allowed to fish by traditional methods and we are the closest to the fishing grounds of all the hotels. So all the old men in their little dugout canoes come to us first to sell us what they’ve caught. We eat fresh seafood all the time and we fly in a lot of salads and vegetables. We also grow some ourselves. There’s lots of fruit on Chole but we fly in more.
We’ve retained some traditional Chole dishes and actually, they’re the favourites on the menu. We’ve introduced things that are completely off the wall like Japanes Sashimi or Turkish mandarin and radish salad. The food’s relatively simple but it’s fresh. It gets cooked and we can’t store it until next meal. If we don’t eat it, the staff eats it. You can’t beat really fresh food, it tastes so good.
Do people change while they stay at Chole Mjini? When you look at them when they arrive and once they leave...
Oh yeah, that’s one of the wonderful things. My wife’s more sensitive than I, she picks it up. My daughter, as well. I mean, people change physically as they relax, but also their behaviour changes. Chole Mjini is a very small place so it’s very intimate. Some people tell us that it’s a life-changing experience for them. We have a number of people who have come back many times – and the most unlikely people.
We once had two Danish professors and their wives. They just looked so old, fragile and grey. We thought this is just not going to work. Well, they’ve been back three or four times. They just love it, they change completely. They leave bright pink and happy.
I’ve learnt a lot about how we tend to judge people and see them, and how wrong we can be.
How would you describe the essence of Chole Mjini?
When we found that we had to build this place, we decided to build it as we would have liked to have found it. That is, to try and change as little as possible to be comfortable. To be able to experience as much of what was there as possible. I guess that about sums it up.
We don’t try and persuade people to go into the village. We don’t even try hard enough to persuade them to contribute any more money to the projects that we run. They can contribute more if they want to — we now have a charity in the UK and a website where people can find out more.
So Chole Mjini isn’t about coming here to do good. It’s a beautiful place. When we were kids, both Ann and I, our parents would take us somewhere really remote. We knew we were on holiday when we reached the place where there wasn’t a flushing toilet and there weren’t electric lights. You go. “Ah! We’re in the middle of nowhere!” In fact, it’s a wonderful thing. I know many other people that find that very relaxing to get so far away.
What if you can't swim or don't like diving?
If you’ve never been into a village, then you’ve absolutely got to go into the village. You’ve got to go and see that poor does not mean dishonest, without pride, without dignity – it doesn’t even mean unhappy. It’s quite humbling and people with money actually realize that their lives are lacking something.
It’s really refreshing to be able to walk around in the village because the village is not spoiled. People are very friendly, they’re very aware that these tourists are helping them. The kids don’t beg or follow you around...
You can also go walking in the forest, you can go look at the fruit bats, for monkeys or snakes. There are ruins both on our island, on our property even, and elsewhere on the island and the next island. So you don’t have to do anything with the sea. There’s a lot to do. We’ve had guests for up to three weeks and they didn’t say they were bored.
Tell us about the development and support for the people of Chole island you’re involved in.
Central to the whole change of the island that we’re helping to bring about, is getting the kids early into kindergarten, giving them a decent meal once a day, taking them to the clinic once a month and making sure that they’re not carrying chronic Malaria, worms or other parasites or infections. You’ve got the brightest little kids you can imagine. There’s so much energy and just pure joy coming out of them. You go, “Shit! If I could have a little bit of that, I’d be Superman!”
So many kids are born into a place where they just don’t a chance to break out of poverty. All you’ve got to do actually is to intervene at that early stage. You’ve already given them a huge, huge chance to make their lives better and if you can carry it through until they can get enough training to actually get a job, you change their lives. If you can carry it for two generations, we’re never ever going to have to help that village again. Their lives will be forever transformed.
It sounds like your support is having an enormous impact.
I know people whose lives have been changed. I had a girl who went nuts when she watched men fishing illegally and destroying coral. She ended up getting a fellowship to go and study corals. Her whole life changed right there, just in the sea. She decided that coral was what was important to her.
On the other hand, there are people who come and look in the village and a few months later, they’ve given us $10,000 to run the kindergarten for a few years or something.
Do you miss anything about your previous life?
I can’t say that I do and I’m going to sound incredibly arrogant — but it’s okay.
Why I don’t miss what I did before is because I stayed in it long enough to be very good at it and to be successful – certainly far more successful than I thought I would ever be. So I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And working in a laboratory is just plain boring after a while, I don’t miss that.
What I do miss are my kids when they go off to school. Right now, my son is in Cape Town and my daughter’s in New Zealand and I really miss them. I’m used to having them around; I’m used to going diving with them — that, I miss.