Lodge is source of hope

2008-01-14 00:00

David Martin doesn’t do anything in half measures — whether it’s helping his Eastern Cape community to get the local school running or putting pressure on local government to commit itself to service delivery.

The Nqileni community, where Martin lives, wants to turn the village into a model of how to overcome poverty with minimal impact on the environment.

With boyish looks, jet-black hair and piercing green eyes, Martin moves effortlessly through the Wild Coast community, conversing in fluent Xhosa.

He opted to build the hut he and partner Rejane Woodroffe share in the village rather than at nearby Bulungula, a backpackers’ lodge he co-owns with the community.

Martin (32) grew up in what he labels a “progressive” home, but the penny finally dropped when he was at the University of Cape Town and became president of the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (Shawco), a student-run NGO that runs health and education projects in poor areas of Cape Town.

“As a student I was clearly out of my depth in some instances, but it gave me an amazing experience and opened my mind and world completely as far as what was going on in South Africa in terms of poverty,” he recalls.

“I realised that the biggest problem in the world is the unsustainable economic system we were chasing.”

Wanting to explore what it truly meant to be an African, Martin hit the road in 1997 and travelled through the continent for almost two years, using only public transport. “It taught me that my favourite space in the world is in a rural African context,” said Martin.

Martin then hiked up the Eastern Cape’s rugged Wild Coast searching for a place where he could continue where he left off at UCT and he remembers vividly his first encounter with Bulungula. “I came around the corner and there were women shrieking and laughing as they tried to cross the river because there were fish swimming around. As I turned around my eye caught this derelict old building and I knew this was it.”

Martin met with the community in 2002. Negotiations with community and government followed, and a deal was struck in which the village trust owned 40% of the backpackers’ lodge and Martin the balance. The land continues to belong to the community.

Several businesses, wholly owned by the community, have sprung up since the lodge was built and a large proportion of the 750 villagers rely on the income from pastimes such as horse riding, kayaking, organic vegetable gardening, beekeeping, massage and guided village tours. These projects have created income for 33 families over and above those employed directly at the lodge.

“We discussed it at length,” says Martin. “You have visitors coming here with resources and it’s not viable to beg from them. The community projects facilitate a healthy exchange.”

The 18 people directly employed by the lodge were carefully selected by the community as those who needed it most. Many are disabled ex-mineworkers or their widows. “My fear when I moved here three years ago was that I would get bored quite quickly. Nobody in the village has been to university and very few had been to school. So I came in with my own stereotypes,” says Martin. “But I have found more diversity in this community than I have in London.”

Woodroffe (32) straddles two vastly different worlds. Half her life is spent at the Metropolitan head office in Cape Town where she is chief economist and head of international portfolio management at Metropolitan Asset Managers.

The other half is spent with Martin in Nqileni where she continues to conduct multi-million rand business deals via the satellite phone while also trying to get the local school up and running. “It’s weird for me thinking sometimes that this person making the cow-dung floor is doing this other job as well,” laughs Martin. He quickly adds that “she’s no good at carrying water on her head”.

Both Martin and Woodroffe believe that despite its poverty, Nqileni is miles ahead of the First World in terms of achieving a form of sustainable living.

Nobody owns a car in the village. Firewood is used in a sustainable manner.

Martin has calculated that in Nqileni there is 900 kilograms of CO2 emission per person per year, compared to 22 000 kilograms in Johannesburg.

Two solar panels for each Nqileni home would change their lives radically. They could run a radio, a TV and charge cellphones. In the city, two solar panels would have little impact because of all the appliances that come with city life.

There is also a strong sense of community. It’s beyond most people’s imagination that someone could die here without their neighbour knowing.

“The bonds are so strong in the community and isolation is abnormal,” says Martin.

But the factor hampering this community is poverty. There is no road, no electricity, no water and no school. The arrival of safe, clean water would be a major event in this remote village. In Nqileni, the main challenges are clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, education, a road and livelihoods.

“We’ve known the solutions to these problems for centuries. All we need are the relatively minimal resources to implement these solutions, resources that the government is currently sitting on,” says Martin.

“For our community to become a model sustainable, happy society is considerably easier than for, say, Newlands or Sandton, which seem doomed for the next few decades to live fearfully behind high walls, unsustainably addicted to energy that’s running out.”

Guests at Bulungula are offered a taste of this potentially “model” lifestyle as they live among the community members, socialise with them, attend funerals or go fishing. “We bring them into a very foreign environment and they are able to see the community’s amazing, hard life,” says Martin, adding that visitors quickly realise that the community has something to offer that they are unable to find in the First World.

Because there are no local services, the lodge has to be self-sustainable. Only local, indigenous material was used to build the lodge. It is powered by solar energy and wind power. A solar pump draws water from a spring for the showers while rain water is the drinking source.

The famous rocket showers are powered by paraffin that only heats the water that is used, so nothing is wasted. Grey water is recycled through the banana plantation. Compost toilets with a urine diversion system take care of sanitation. Only drift wood is used to power the evening bonfires.

The carbon footprint of the lodge is around 1 000 kilograms per person per year and this is mostly inflated by the lodge vehicle that is used to ferry visitors from various pick-up points.

However, Martin and Woodroffe are impatient for change. “We want to create a society that is great, but we need equal access to resources. This is just not happening in Nqileni. And it is important to remember that this lack of services is happening within the context of a government with a R30-billion surplus,” says Martin.

— Health-e News Service.

• Bulungula Lodge can be contacted at 047 577 8900.

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