Sandele Eco-Retreat in Kartong is an example of responsible tourism. The lodges are built with compressed, stabilized earth blocks which use a minimum of cement and are frequently stabilized with lime. Electricity, hot water and water pumping are provided using solar and wind power. The Lodges and the Guest Rooms have compost toilets and a constructed wetlands system that minimizes the use of, and purifies, the water flowing from the toilets, showers, hand basins and rainwater. Every step that its founders Geri Mitchell and Maurice Phillips from England did was agreed with the local Village Development Committee. In 2014 they organized an EDE course with 32 participants, 24 of them from the village Kartong.
After careers in senior management in the social care world in the UK, we began to dream of our next step being something and somewhere different. Inspirations came from many sources and we finally decided The Gambia was the place where we could realize our vision of creating a different kind of tourism. After five years changing the fortunes at the Safari Garden hotel in Fajara (now handed over to local management), we settled on the Kartong region as the location for our Eco-Retreat and Learning Centre.
In the traditional manner, we sent a gift of Kola nuts to the village elders, who then invited us to discussion. Determined to ensure that the local community would benefit, we registered the land in the Village’s name. Kartong was the first village to reclaim indigenous land that had been reowned by the government for private investment. We now sub-lease the land from the village and it will revert fully to village management at the end of the 25 year lease.
Sandele’s (pronounced San-day-le) name was carefully chosen. ‘Sandele’ is derived from two Mandinka words (the Mandinka are the majority tribe of The Gambia). ‘Sine’ means ‘now and ‘Dehli’ means ‘be still’. Often when rocking her baby to sleep, a mother will whisper the words ‘Sineedehleh’, ‘Now be still’. This is a wonderful strap line for an eco-retreat.
We also very deliberately set out to create an authentic Eco-Retreat. The “E” standing for “Environmental” with the use of sustainable energy sources, reduction of water usage (including the decision to use composting toilets) and sustainable construction methods which was a particular challenge. It was clear that we want to use as little of the precious timber as possible as the forests need protection. Concrete, with its high environmental impact, is not really an alternative. But locally used mud blocks were not ready to resist the water during the rainy season. In this situation we learnt a perfect building technique from Auroville: It is possible to mix earth with lime, and then by compressing the earth in the machine we imported from India the blocks become hard and waterproof, and easy to build with. We have lots of lime through the millions of oyster shells at the river banks. The soil that we have here at Sandele is perfect for this kind of technique. All our buildings are made of compressed, stabilized earth blocks.
The system was so successful that we started a building company to construct buildings in this style all over The Gambia.
The “Co” in E-co stands for “Community” with a commitment to hire at least 70% of staff from the local village, purchase locally where possible and donate part of the proceeds from our room revenue to the Village Development Fund. From the beginning we took every step in consultation with the elders and the Village Development Committee. In the big hotels local people have no access, unless they are employees. Many villagers everywhere in Africa try to make a living from selling jewellery and other handicraft items to tourists, and many tourists feel disturbed by the “bumstering” while they want to relax.
In Sandele it is done differently. Vendors are not turned away at our gates, but quite the opposite, we sit with them and offer to exhibit their products in our reception and sell it for a fair price. They make a much better income out of that. Some of the producers followed our offer to work in the workshops that we created. They have become amazing messengers for their culture while the tourists admire their skillfulness.
One of the villagers who was actually very shy, could only speak to the tourists when he was drunk. He had become rejected by his community. Through our approach this absolutely changed. Since he can sell his products here, he has been able to pay scholarships for two of his nephews and is well-regarded in the village now.
We spent all our savings to build the lodges and the restaurant. Some of lessons learnt along the way were rather expensive, so our savings were exhausted earlier than we hoped. Now we build rooms when we have made a good income. Which is not easy in the moment. Although The Gambia has not had a single case of Ebola, nearly all tourists and Yoga groups cancelled their arrangements.
We now have to pull together to be able to employ our workers throughout the year, not only in the sunny (winter) season. We are very positive that tourists will come again. Sandele is now the last place where the forest goes down to the beach, and the Minister of Tourism has promised to protect the bay from mass tourism and deforestation. It is only a pity that most tourists miss the rainy season as the bush bursts into life, it is still very sunny and the rain is not constant by any means.
In 2014, we co-organized an EDE course with GEN and Gaia Education. 24 young participants came from Kartong. Learning about permaculture, community governance, land use planning and keeping cultural heritage was a life-changing experience for all of them, and most try to apply the knowledge and skills in Kartong. There is now a permaculture garden in the village, an organic bee-keeper, and a community that invests a lot into sustaining themselves with producing traditional palm wine. A project to maintain the regeneration of the fish and oyster populations in the mangroves of their river was started. They have become change agents in Kartong, with the strong wish to transition it into an ecovillage.
Of course the process is not always smooth. At times power conflicts arise and some in the village are afraid that things will get out of their control.
The Gambia has a big gift to offer the world. Gambians know how to live together peacefully even with different cultures and religions. They will also learn how to integrate their traditional knowledge into sustainability strategies.
When our 25 year lease is up, we look forward to retiring to our house on the site, under the shade of a Boabab tree, and remain a part of the community.
Gilbert Jassey, a villager from Kartong
“My family sent me to our capital Banju to study law and become a lawyer. In 2011 I saw a presentation by Kosha Joubert about Ecovillages and GEN. This inspired me so deeply that I decided to go back to Kartong and stay. After reading a book about Permaculture and after attending an EDE course in Siebenlinden, Germany, I started a Permaculture demonstration garden and helped to organise the EDE course in Kartong in 2014.”