News / Africa

Ecotourism with a Twist in Sierra Leone

Tribe members and locals dance together at the launch of TribeWanted, an ecotourism venture set up on John Obey beach, 80km south of the capital, Freetown
Tribe members and locals dance together at the launch of TribeWanted, an ecotourism venture set up on John Obey beach, 80km south of the capital, Freetown
Fid Thompson

An idyllic beach south of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, is now home to members of TribeWanted, an ecotourism venture that hopes to build an ecologically sustainable resort through the financial support and manpower of its tribe members all over the world, connected through the Internet.

A new community has arrived on the shores of a pristine beach 80 kilometers south of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. Tents dot the landscape under a cluster of trees neighboring the small fishing village of John Obey.

This is "TribeWanted" Sierra Leone - an experiment in ecotourism and sustainable development brought here by British social entrepreneur Ben Keene.

A villager at John Obey, Sierra Leone, the site of a Tribewanted eco-resort
A villager at John Obey, Sierra Leone, the site of a Tribewanted eco-resort

Eleven "tribe members" from England and America arrived here two weeks ago, eager to mix a beach holiday with cross-cultural exchange and also help build an eco-resort using the latest sustainable technologies.

Keene, who set up a similar venture in Fiji in 2006, is hoping his new tribe will take off like the last one.

"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 10 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."

Though politically stable since the end of civil war in 2002, Sierra Leone still struggles to counter external negative perceptions. Unlike Fiji, the tourism industry is relatively undeveloped and the country still identified more with the conflict than with its beaches.

TribeWanted uses the internet to create a virtual tribe. Those interested in joining sign up on the website - a platform where tribe members all over the world can follow the progress in John Obey and contribute to the project.

Those who decided to make the trip, pay $450 for a week's stay at John Obey. This covers food and accommodation and also goes towards funding the venture. But members have to fork out themselves for a return flight - anywhere from $750 to $1,500 - visa, insurance and transport from the airport to the beach.

The resort will house its visitors in round huts made with a technology called earth-bagging that uses a small amount of concrete mixed with dirt and quarry powder. The toilet facilities are compost, bucket showers on the beach, food waste is composted and permaculture gardening will provide fresh vegetables for tribe members and, eventually, ecotourists.

The first group of tribe members have constructed a solar tower, bringing electric light to the tribal village and powering a small fridge and blogging essentials such as laptop, mobile phone and camera chargers.

For retired British tribe member Mike Hughes, the TribeWanted experience has so far been positive.

"We arrived in the dark, pitched tents at midnight, and jaw dropping 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 said. "The people are really nice and friendly."

The beach at John Obey village in Sierra Leone - site of a Tribewanted eco-resort
The beach at John Obey village in Sierra Leone - site of a Tribewanted eco-resort

In John Obey village, young people make their living either farming or fishing. TribeWanted is providing another avenue of work, hiring 30 local youths to train and assist in building the eco-resort. The venture also donates $500 every month to the village.

Abu Bayoh is a Secondary School student from John Obey. Although he is not one of the hired crew, he comes every day to learn from TribeWanted's expert in earthbag construction. For Bayoh, the opportunity to learn new skills is exciting.

Bayoh says they are all getting training in how to construct the earth-bag buildings. TribeWanted is benefitting young people at John Obey, Bayoh says, because they are learning a professional trade.

Susan Braun is a tribe member and documentary photographer from Washington, D.C. She says the experience is not for everyone.

"If you're one who likes a fancy hotel and the security of that, I think this might not be your thing," she said. "But if you like adventure and you are, ah, 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."

The TribeWanted experience is not all about work.

Tribe members relax at the end of the workday swimming, playing football on the beach and swigging the local Star beer as the sun sets on John Obey.

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