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An experiment in eco-tourism hits a beach in Sierra Leone

posted 1 Oct 2010, 04:50 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 12 Oct 2010, 04:09 ]

Holiday makers head to Sierra Leone to take part in an eco-tourism experiment set up by a British entrepeneur. Visitors from the US and the UK pay to mix a beach holiday with work in the local community.

On the shores of a pristine beach 80km south of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, a new community has arrived.

Tents dot the landscape under a cluster of trees neighbouring the small fishing village of John Obey. This is TribeWanted Sierra Leone - an experiment in eco-tourism and sustainable development brought here by British entrepreneur Ben Keene.

Eleven so-called "tribe members" arrived here a week ago from England and America. They've come to mix a beach holiday with a cultural exchange with locals, while helping to build an eco-resort using the latest sustainable technologies.

Tribe members pay 450 US dollars for a week's stay at John Obey, which covers food and accommodation and also goes towards funding the venture. But members have to fork out themselves for a return flight, which can be anywhere from 750 to 1500 US dollars, as well as paying for a visa, insurance and transport from the airport to the beach.

The visitors' first task is to establish a solar tower to power lights, a small fridge and blogging essentials such as laptop, mobile phone and camera chargers.

Founder Keene hopes the venture will give something back to the nearby village, but the project will only work if he can convince enough people to make the trip to Sierra Leone. His first TribeWanted project was based on a tropical island in Fiji, a country with an established tourist industry.

Sierra Leone is a different kettle of fish. Although it has been politically and socially stable since the end of civil war in 2002, outside perceptions of the country are hard to change and may be this project's greatest challenge.

"We've got a year to make it work and if we can get the visitors here and the tribe members here in, you know, at least double figures on average throughout this year, so ten at a time, spending a few hundred dollars a week, then this thing can sustain itself," Keene says. "The biggest challenge is not here on the beach or in the village trying to coordinate the building of this community. It's persuading people who've only got this one perception, understandably, of Sierra Leone that actually that's not the case anymore," said Keene.

The resort will house its visitors in round huts made with a technology called earth-bagging. Visitors fill earth-bags with a small amount of concrete mixed with dirt and powder from a nearby quarry for the foundation of the first earth-bag hut. They also get involved in cooking at the "Chop House", or kitchen.

People in John Obey village, named after a British former slave trader who settled here, make their living fishing and farming. TribeWanted now hires 30 local youths and donates 500 US dollars every month to the village.

17-year-old Abu Bayoh is a local secondary school student. Although he is not one of the hired crew he comes every day to learn from the camp's earthbagging experts.

For Bayoh the opportunity to learn new skills is exciting.

"Right now they are teaching me to build a hut building so that I can become a part of TribeWanted, because we all deserve something from TribeWanted," Bayoh says. He hopes his newly learned skills will help him in the future and perhaps win him a spot on the TribeWanted team.

"You see those guys over there, they are all getting trained up so they will be good builders. So I'd say we at John Obey are getting a good thing from TribeWanted because we are learning a trade, to be professional builders."

Mike Hughes is retired and has come from the United Kingdom for a two week stay at John Obey. His expereince at TribeWanted camp has positive.

"We arrived in the dark, pitched tents at midnight, and my jaw dropped when I came out of my tent at 6:30 on the first morning. The sun was about to come out and it was exactly like the pictures that I'd seen on the website, so that was very positive," he says. "The people are really nice and friendly," Hughes said.

Susan Braun is a documentary photographer visiting from Washington, DC. She says the tribe members have become close, like a family.

"If you're someone who likes a fancy hotel and the security of that, I think this might not be your thing. But if you like adventure and you are into nature, this is a great place. And if you - especially if you want to work, I think it is a unique opportunity to work side by side and get involved in real lives, real people, in a beautiful country," said Braun.

And it is not all about work. At the end of the day tribe members have plenty of time to relax swimming with local children, playing football and stretching out in hammocks as the sun sets.