Sunday 14 April 2013

My experience in one of the most rural villages of South Africa

Tuesday, 19th February 2013

 "I am a piece of paper, and I control your entire life" -Money.

There it was: a passenger-friendly government-converted 4X4 pick-up truck.

And there we were: 2 adults in the front; 9 adults (including myself), a baby, and piles of luggage in the back.

A 3.5 hour drive to Bulungula Lodge from the Shell garage in Umtata, after another 3.5 hour drive from Buccaneers Lodge and Backpackers (Chintsa).

I would be blatantly lying if I said that it was a comfortable journey. It was the rockiest road I have ever encountered. This was my Sunday. This is also Africa.
And my friend, it was cruising.

Up until 2010, the only access to this haven was a rough 4X4 drive over what could be considered one massive pothole. Now that the dirt roads have been carved and upgraded, travellers can either self-drive their way to the lodge, or book the converted 4X4 monster shuttle from either Umtata or the Coffee Bay Junction. 

Bulungula Lodge is in Nqileni -one of the most rural villages in SA - situated in a remote part of Mbashe. There are 3 other surrounding villages: Folokwe; Mgojweni; and Tshezi.

Here I was to stay until Tuesday morning - this slice of rural Africa is an eco-friendly and ethically conscientious paradise. In hindsight, I realise how much more time I wish I had been given here. 

During my time at Bulungula I spent a day in the life of the local Nqileni womenI woke up at 5am to hike a sand dune where I sat and watched dolphins surfing the swell as the sun rose to greet this magnificent world - while a local woman by the name of Pinki cooked me pancakes;  I learnt some more Xhosa phrases; I spent the afternoon shell collecting and thought drifting; I challenged my values and beliefs by living a sustainable lifestyle outside of my own contemporary western conditioning for 2 days; I spent an evening stargazing with fellow backpackers and an astronomer (I learnt how to find North); I forgot that mobile technology existed; I conquered a rocket shower; I made use of an Honesty Tab for the first time in my life; I came to the understanding that poverty  is the absence of choice; and that our failure to educate South African youth will continue to affect the livelihoods of every single citizen – black or white; rich or poor; rural or urban; and therefore the future of our remarkable nation.

I hope, I think, I believe in babysteps and ripple effects.

This place blew my mind.


#1) Bring a torch!! There is minimum electricity at Bulungula, whatever of it there is, is solar or wind powered. This will make your life much easier in the dark at night when making your way to the bathrooms!!

#2) There are NO card/swiping facilities or ATM's in the area. Draw your money BEFORE leaving any of the major towns on your way to Bulungula. 

This was our ride from Shell garage (Mthatha) to Bulungula, a government-converted 4X4 pick-up truck.

11 people, 1 baby, all our luggage, a 3.5 hour journey over 4X4 roads. This picture was taken right at the beginning of the drive from Mthatha to Bulungula.

My first sighting of Bulungula Lodge in the Nqileni Village. The lodge is 40% owned and run by the surrounding Xhosa community. It also offers members of the local community an opportunity to open up small tourism businesses such as day activities which are advertised through the lodge. These businesses are 100% owned and run by the community members who organise them. Day activities include fishing; canoeing; a day spent with a traditional herbalist in the forest; cultural village tours;  women power tours; massages; and sunrise pancakes. All payment transactions are transparent, so you know that your money is deposited straight to where it is most needed. 

Challenge yourself: Escape all your pre-conceptions on life - a world exists and awaits you beyond smartphones, geysers, blaring TVs, and traffic. Go lose (and maybe find) yourself in this African paradise on a grassland area overlooking the mouth of the Bulungula estuary, touching a coastal forest. Experience being cut off by forests, rivers and a magnificent ocean, . 

Inside Bulungula Lodge: feel free to chill out in the communal lounge area.

This wind AND solar powered getaway allows for the peace and tranquillity which is lost in the inevitable drone of the urban lifestyle. However, there are functioning wall-sockets in the communal lounge area which you can make use of to plug in small devices such as mobile phones, laptops, iPads, cameras etc..

The HONESTY TABBulungula offers you the options of either self-catering or signing yourself up for their wholesome meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner AND dessert). Bulungula also makes use of  an 'honesty tab'. This implies that you can help yourself to the foods available at their make-shift tuckshop as well as their selection of alcohol (wines, 750ml beers, and their variety of spirits) with the trust that you personally keep count on the provided tally charts of what it is that you have taken and consumed, with the intention of paying for it in total at the end of your stay, before leaving Bulungula. 

A refreshing way of conducting your vacation, knowing that you have the trust of complete strangers to not abuse or dishonour.

There is minimum mobile reception besides a single window ledge in the communal kitchen in the lodge itself. I found myself more disconnected and disengaged from the outside world than I had expected. At this part of my journey not only did I have minimum reception, but my mobile stopped functioning properly. There is internet connection, but it is veeeeeeeeery slow... And it was so liberating.

WASTE: The lodge separates its waste into 3 categories: organic waste which is used as compost; paper and cardboard waste which is burnt on site; and every other type of waste which is transported to the municipal land sight in Umtata.

The Shower Block: This exquisitely mosaicked wash-room provides you with all of your basic needs to keep clean. 

This beauty I found on my first evening at Bulungula. She sat there trying to lay her eggs inside one of the shower stalls on one of the small side tables. She stayed there for 3 days without moving, hissing at anyone that would come to close. 

ROCKET SHOWERS: Personally one of my favourite infrastructural attractions,  Bulungula Lodge keeps it green with the help of their cost effective and sustainable paraffin fuelled rocket-showers. Once lit, these showers provide 7 minutes worth of hot water, which take 1 initial minute to heat up. This both limits and discourages the use of excess water. 

The shower has a small furnace at its base. To heat up the water, you must have 3 wraps around-your-hand's worth of toilet paper which you place in the furnace itself. You then take one of the small tubs of paraffin which are kept in the shower block itself, and pour it over the toilet paper in the furnace. The last step is to light a match, and throw it in the furnace. The sound that you hear is frightening at first - exactly what you would imagine a rocket to sound like - inevitably exciting! The water will be boiling hot within a minute, and will stay that way for a further 7 minutes. 

Quite frankly, it beats me turning my geyser on and off once a day back at home.  

The lodge is highly conscious of its carbon footprint, and as a result tries to minimise its environmental impacts where it can.  A part of its conservation initiative involved the construction of bio-compost toilets (eco-friendly) as seen in the picture above.

These communal toilets are placed together in an ablution block. Each cubicle has been painted with funky designs of their own, providing for a unique and captivating experience with each piddle! :)

These compost toilets help conserve water as they do not require it at all. There are different compartments within the toilet itself for urine and solid. If one 'lays' a solid, one must simply scoop 2 cups of dirt on top of their morning constitutional, which is provided by the metal bucket on the right of the toilet.  

Recycled Water: both the grey water from the showers and the basins, as well as the urine collected from the compost toilets are religiously pumped into a 'banana circle' which absorbs the grey water for the treatment system in the lodge's permaculture garden.

This eco-lodge which falls within the communal land holdings of the rural Nqileni Village has been planned out with the idea of reducing its environmental impacts. Most of  its infrastructure has been designed and constructed in local fashion using rural techniques where possible, as seen by the African mud-huts in this photograph. These huts have been made with mud bricks, cement plaster and thatch.

The original existing infrastructure of the lodge was renovated into a communal area, store room and office. Above that, local labour was used for the construction (and decor) of the lodge/backpackers where 10 African mud huts were built for accommodation;  1 ablution block; and 1 shower block.

This is where I slept, inside one of the African mud-hut dormitories. The Lodge also offers camping facilities  double rooms in African huts, as well as luxury safari tents situated in the coastal forest with the option of full catering or self-catering.

Bulungula Lodge sources most of its water from the rainwater collected by the four rain tanks in this pictures. These tanks have a 30,000 litre storage capacity. Water is also sourced from the nearby Spring.

Bulungula Lodge common room: Because 40% of the lodge is owned by the surrounding Nqileni Village Community Trust, the local villagers form an integral part of Bulungula daily life. Rightfully speaking, they make use of the lodge facilities on a daily basis , in a non-invasive way to the guests of the lodge.

Inside the common room, looking out. Bulungula Lodge was one of the first lodges in the world to be Fair Trade accredited.

Overlooking the Bulungula estuary, not even a 2 minute walk away from the beach.

Some of the local Nqileni children, showing off their skills of balancing water on their head to me in the setting sun, full of laughter.

Some of the most priceless sunrises and sunsets I have come across characterise this surreal landscape. You can see the locals' huts on the top of the hill.

Bulungula sunset.

Into the Nqileni Village I go.

TOURS: The lodge promotes three tours which encourage the interest of the local culture and traditions: The Village Cultural Tour; The Women Power Tour; and the Traditional Healer Tour. I was lucky enough to embark on the Women Power Tour where I spent a day in the life of a Nqileni woman, shadowing and partaking in a woman's footsteps. The lodge encourages both male and female guests to partake in this specific tour, as it in turn encourages gender equality within the local community.

Much of the community relies on subsistence farming. One of the more common crops to be found growing throughout the area is corn. 

Over half of the Nqileni Village is under the age of 21. Most of the adults are illiterate and reliant on their subsistence farming, government grants, wage remittances from migrant workers and since 2004 they have been able to rely on the partially community owned income from Bulungula Lodge. 

There is an estimated 800 people living in the Nqileni Village. The closest clinic is a 2 hour walk away. There is no potable drinking water, and they have no access to electricity or toilets. It was until recently that children were being given school lessons under trees.

A major responsibility that Bulungula has taken on has been to encourage rural development and empowerment. 

According to the Xhora Mouth Demographic, most of the households found in the 4 villages surrounding Bulungula Lodge live out oppressive circumstances, holding some of the nation's worst statistics regarding access to basic services, education and employment opportunities and therefore income. 

Women Power Tour: I spent the day with another guest (and now friend) Kate, learning the ways of the Nqileni women from this woman's daughter. I watched this woman sit on the floor hand washing her entire families clothes for the better part of four hours.

What some of the Xhora Mouth demographics revealed (and became very evident to me on my tour) were that:

 On average, households were bringing in an income of less than R1600 per/month. 

78% of this population are living below the poverty line. 

75% of the population have no access to clean drinking water, relying on rivers and streams. 

74% of the population have no access to toilet facilities. 

72% use firewood for cooking. 

79% live in self-built mud-brick houses. 

Me, sitting in a local woman's mud-brick hut, getting my face painted with wet clay. Locals use this as a form of traditional sunblock during the day to stop their faces from burning. It feels cool on the skin, and then dries tight on the face. 

The local woman also wrapped a piece of cloth around my head. I was to find out later that this helps with the balancing of water buckets and sticks on your head while walking.

Once my face paint was completed.

Kate's turn to get painted. The red clay was applied with a match stick.

The both of us with our makeshift sunblock and our head gear (Kate on the left; me on the right).

The incredibly surreal landscapes we journeyed through.

Kate and her balancing water bucket: Part of the tour included a lesson on how to balance water buckets on our heads. We walked down to the spring with our buckets which are at the dip of the valley. There, we filled them with water, and walked back up the hill to our mud hut where we would boil the water to use for cooking. This is the part where I found my headscarf to be incredibly useful with regards to stabilising the balancing bucket. I do believe that the trick to this challenge is to start small. We got given these tiny buckets - where as local women were carrying 15 litres of water on their head, if not more. 

Next, we went scavenging through the forest for firewood. What we were able to find, we put on our heads, where they were there to stay while we strolled back to the mud-hut. (Kate on the left; me on the right).

Some women in the village manage to run small sustainable businesses. This woman runs a hair salon from her home. Here you can see this young mother getting her 'hair did'. 

Both mother and baby have clay on their faces to protect them from the harsh African sun.

Kate and I were then led to a neighbouring hut on the hill where we were shown how to grind up the corn. Slowly but surely we began to understand that we were being put up to the task of making lunch!

The Nqileni Village: If you look at the top left, you will see the river mouth/estuary. Bulungula Lodge is located just right of it, a 2 minute stroll off the beach itself. 

Drying the laundry.

Like I mentioned earlier, start small! 

Once we had finished grinding down  our corn into a fine powder, Kate and I were taken for another walk through the village to the local grocery store. We bought 2 big bottles of soda (coke and ginger beer), and a packet of salt. Bear in mind that there is no electricity for refrigerators.

Our guide for the day, balancing 1,5 litres worth of an irregular object 'like it ain't no thang'...

The kitchen. This lady poured the water into the cooking pot while Kate and I took turns cutting up a cabbage. We then went to make a fire outside from the wood we had collected. We mixed the ground corn with the water and let it cook over the fire in the pot for a few minutes after adding the sliced pieces of cabbage. After adding a pinch of salt, we returned to the mud hut with our spoils.

Tea Break: The women drink hot sweet tea during the day despite the high temperatures.

Animals walk in and out of the house as there is no door to this mud hut. Cats, dogs, chickens, and sometimes even the pigs!

Finally, lunch is served, and it is surprisingly filling!

The Bulungula Incubator (BI), a non-profit organisation) was launched in response to some of the harsh realities facing the people of these four villages.  The BI aims at encouraging sustainable rural development by integrated approach through four key focus areas: education; sustainable livelihoods; basic services; health and nutrition.

In an isolated village where most of the adults are illiterate, it becomes evident in our globalising world that education is vital, acting as one of the most integral catalyst for change. Education broadens the horizons, leaving you opportunities for choice - a vital medicine for poverty when it symbolises the 'absence of choice'. 

Back at the lodge after a long day at the Woman Power tour, and my clay-sunblock has stayed true to itself - I didn't even burn!

I signed myself up for Sunrise Pancakes with Pinki on my final morning at Bulungula. I was to leave on the shuttle at 09h30.

Meet Pinki. Pinki is a local woman from the Nqileni Village. Pinki fetches you from the lodge at 05h00. She then takes you on an effortless 20 minute beach walk to a large sand dune.

Once on the sand dune, you are free to sit at the top, sip on a cup of hot drink, and await the glorious sun.

Awaken Sun! It is I, your reason for rising! (me, still half asleep).

While we sat drinking our teas and coffees, Pinki our guide was at the bottom of the dune, cooking us fresh pancakes. We were lucky enough on this day to spot a pod of dolphins surfing the morning swell in front of us. A memory that will be with me for a very long time.

Fabian and Lea. 

Kate and I.

Pinki cooking our pancakes on the steel drum. 

Choose from a warm home-made banana sauce, melted chocolate, condensed milk, honey, or just the traditional lemon, cinnamon and sugar pancake toppings.

I chose melted chocolate and condensed milk on mine! :)

 Lea, eating my left over pancakes as I was too full.

So after spending my final morning at Bulungula eating pancakes on a sand dune while watching the dolphins surfing the waves at sunrise, I now make my way to the Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay. Special people have been met, special moments were had, and many more are yet to come x.


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  5. Do these people need handcarts to carry their heavy loads?