An Oasis of Tomorrows
Ecotourism and unexpected beauty on Lake Malawi.
The turquoise and dark-blue fresh water of Lake Malawi is literally clean enough to drink. Tucked into a calm lagoon close to the lake’s eastern shore lies Likoma Island, a small Malawian oasis just a stone’s throw from the Mozambique border.
Some 9,000 people live on Likoma and make their living fishing and farming. Life is slow here, the fish are plentiful and the sun is always shining. There are no paved roads, and the only cars are a hospital ambulance and an open-top Land Rover belonging to Kaya Mawa lodge. It’s the perfect spot for a peaceful resort.
Built over six years beginning in 1994, Kaya Mawa is both luxurious and simple, decorated with goods handmade by local women and designed to fit seamlessly into the environment. The 11 guest rooms feel like natural extensions of the rocky landscape, as if they are private caves waiting for guests to explore. But, unlike caves, they are light and airy — making the inside feel almost as if it’s connected to the beauty outside, ensuring that guests never stop soaking up the island’s ecosystem.
In the main dining area at Kaya Mawa, a dozen white linen seating options beckon visitors: couches that are almost like beds, hammocks swaying in the breeze, armchairs just asking for an afternoon nap — all with views of the lake.
From here, village women can be seen walking about quietly in groups of two or three, occasionally gathering buckets of drinking water from the lake and carrying them away on their heads, children in tow. A family vacationing at Kaya Mawa is visible suiting up in snorkel gear and heading out, their little ones mingling with village children.
In the guest rooms, gauzy raw-silk curtains blow in the breeze, limestone floors feel cool beneath the feet, and weathered wood furniture — often made from the hulls of fishing canoes no longer fit for the sea — looks rustically chic. In the rooms built for families, kid’s beds swing on hammocks.
Every room also has a deck with lounge chairs and thick cushions, while private lake entryways invite guests to swim and explore. Many rooms have bathtubs for two built by local stonemasons, plus private outdoor swimming pools with panoramic views.
One of the premium rooms, Makengulu, is even perched on its own private atoll. Guests cross a wooden bridge over pristine aqua water to find nothing but rocks, trees, birds and overflowing bougainvillea to welcome them.
A country not to be overlooked
While the Seychelles Islands and the Maldives have long been thought of as prime African tourist destinations, Malawi is still off the tourist map. Only 5 percent of people who travel internationally make it to Africa, and the majority of those travelers go to Egypt or South Africa.
“People don’t get that you can come and lie on a sandy beach right in the middle of Africa,” says James Lightfoot, owner of Kaya Mawa. For him, part of the challenge is getting people to realize how extraordinarily beautiful this spot is. For most travelers, Malawi is just another poor country, not all that different from its neighbors and with not much to offer tourists.
But for those willing to make the journey, Kaya Mawa doesn’t disappoint. Lake Malawi is one of Africa’s biggest lakes, at nearly 30,000 square kilometers (11,580 square miles). The best way to reach the lodge is via an hour-long Cessna flight from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, piloted by Ulendo Airlink.
Malawi is often called the Warm Heart of Africa, and Likoma Island ups the ante on that promise: Everything at the lodge is sourced from the village, but the ethos of the operation means that all is offered and given, rather than taken or procured.
For example, many of the lodge’s planters and individual bed headboards are crafted from old fishing boats that are purchased from villagers when the vessels are no longer sea-worthy. The wood is weather-worn and beautiful — skillfully hand-carved, its holes carefully repaired with small iron patches. They are a chic and symbolic addition to the rooms — connecting the guests to the island economy and traditional ways of fishing.
And almost all of the lodge’s décor is made by local women in a craft workshop run by Lightfoot’s wife, Suzie. Twenty-seven women work there, weaving baskets, sewing linen pillowcases and bedspreads, painting clay beads and stringing seashells for lampshades. Each of the women generates much-needed income from items purchased by the lodge and its guests.
After the local government, Kaya Mawa is the biggest employer on Likoma, with more than 90 staff members. The goal is to hire at least one person from each family so that everyone on the island benefits from the lodge. If a staff member passes away or is no longer able to work, the lodge makes an effort to hire someone else from the same family.
In turn, the community’s support of the lodge means that guests are welcome throughout the island, local farms offer affordable produce and fishermen sell their catch of the day to provide fresh seafood dishes on the lodge menu each evening.
To understand the relationship between Kaya Mawa and the people of Likoma, it helps to know that Malawi is one of the world’s least-developed countries. Despite huge influxes of money from nongovernmental organizations and donors, development remains elusive. The average annual income per person in Malawi is less than US$900, and most people make their living off the land.
For an outsider to come in and build on this beautiful spot, the people of the island must first accept and welcome their presence, and a partnership must be built.
“If you go to a really beautiful lodge elsewhere in Africa, the staff often rotate in and out and aren’t necessarily from the area,” Lightfoot explains, “whereas all of our staff live with their families within walking distance of Kaya Mawa.”
While other lodges might call themselves ecologically “green” because of their environmental practices, they are a far cry from what Kaya Mawa is attempting to achieve.
“Ecotourism isn’t about how many solar panels you have or whether you compost,” Lightfoot adds. “It’s about the community.”
Far more than responsible tourism
The term ecotourism was popularized in the early 1980s by a Mexican conservationist who defined it as “environmentally responsible travel” — meaning that such travel promotes conservation, actively benefits the local population and encourages low negative impact on the community.
Kaya Mawa uses a combination of power sources, including solar panels for electricity and a diesel-powered generator when necessary. The lodge recycles everything — from old fishing boats to lake water, which is pumped into the swimming pools. Nothing is used in excess or brought onto the island when it can be sourced locally.
At Kaya Mawa, being “eco” is really just being logical. It makes sense for the partnership between the lodge and the island to extend to the environment. The island offers many resources, the lodge uses them respectfully and everyone benefits.
In addition to stewarding the local environment, Kaya Mawa engages in numerous other projects. When Lightfoot starts naming some of them, the list sounds like a mishmash of disorganized activities, such as fixing the church bell and buying goats to launch a profitable goat farm.
But there’s purpose in this chaos: Almost all of the small projects are community-driven, in that they are things the community has directly requested. When the community needed the church bell to be fixed, the lodge helped provide the funds.
The goats didn’t work out so well, but that’s another story.
Sometimes, being a good neighbor comes down to basic communication. Like when the lodge bought a couple of quad bikes for guests to take around the island. The first few takers were thrilled and soon started pedaling down the island’s dirt roads — through villages of mud-brick houses with zinc and thatch roofs, through cactus and baobab trees, and past fields of cassava and maize. The villager who had his cassava plant run over, however, was less excited.
“The first thing we did was apologize,” says Becky Harris, the lodge’s general manager. Since it was harvest season, Harris calculated the value of the staple crop, and then the lodge reimbursed the farmer. From then on, guests were more clearly instructed about the importance of staying on the main path and not off-roading.
A small lodge like Kaya Mawa — compared to a charity with a mandate, donors, overhead and so on — can nimbly respond to community needs and take on a more individualized approach.
On Likoma, most of the projects have grown organically over time. For example, Kaya Mawa never planned to help finance two schools. But over the past several years, the lodge contributed the funding to create two elementary schools that now educate more than 100 children. The lod ge also established the charity Island Child, which allows visitors to continue their relationship with Likoma by sponsoring a child through his or her secondary education. More than 60 children are now sponsored.
In the local Tonga dialect, Kaya Mawa means “maybe tomorrow.” Building the lodge using only local goods and local labor took so long that, during the construction process, Kaya Mawa’s previous owners often repeated the phrase to answer questions about when the project would be finished or when the ferry would arrive. But it’s come to mean so much more.
Maybe tomorrow, the government in Malawi will invest in small village outposts like those on Likoma Island. Maybe tomorrow, social entrepreneurship will take hold and economic growth will begin to raise the standard of living for everyday Malawians. Moving slowly to build the lodge ensured that everyone’s tomorrows would be better than their yesterdays. Kaya Mawa is committed to a partnership with the people of Likoma Island that will ensure many more tomorrows on this oasis.
For 12 years, Peter Kawando, 38, has worked at Kaya Mawa — first as a builder, then as a bartender and shopper, and now as Becky Harris’ managing counterpart.
Peter’s father was a fisherman on Likoma, and his mother never attended school. Still, they managed to send their son to secondary school on the mainland. Now, he supports both of them — along with his three children, and his sister and her six children, and his other sister and her five children. All together, that’s 18 people who regularly depend on him.
Peter’s house has a tin roof, and in the future he hopes to have electricity and a television. These goals, however, are modest; the real goal is for his three children to go to university on the mainland.
A few years ago, when he first became a manager, Peter feared people’s responses. “If I tell someone to do something, maybe they’d say ‘No, you’re just a bar man!’” he admits. “But now they listen to me.”
As the lodge has grown, so have Peter’s responsibilities, skills and the income he can provide his family.