An amazing place with aspirational values towards its community.
- From the visitors' book1.
Tumani Tenda is The Gambia's first eco-tourism project. Comprising a small village and riverside camp, it provides a wonderfully quiet respite from the main resorts, and a unique insight into traditional African village life.
Despite being only 25 miles or so from Banjul, the village remains well off most tourists' itineraries. You'll be lucky to find a taxi driver who knows where it is, and those that do will probably be very surprised that you would want to go there! The villagers themselves are very aware that masses of tourists could destroy the village's special appeal, so large tour groups are not allowed. This helps to make the place wonderfully tranquil; an oasis of calm in a frequently busy and frenetic part of the world.
Tumani Tenda was uninhabited until quite recently. The village name derives from 'Tumani' - a man from a village nearby who grew groundnuts in the area around the turn of the century - and 'Tenda' - which simply means 'river' in the Mandinka language. When Tumani died in the 1920s, the bush grew back and Tumani Tenda was forgotten.
Three decades later a man called Ousman Sanyang, living in the north bank village of Madina Said, was looking for somewhere to relocate his family. Guided by the meditations of the village marabout2, Ousman decided that Tumani Tenda would be a great place, and when his sons were old enough, in the 1960s, the family moved there. They constructed a compound and established a vegetable garden, gathering fuel from a nearby wood. Within a few years, a second family, the Sonkos, had joined them. Between them, they expanded the garden and tried to find ways of managing the woodland in a sustainable way. They realised that the forest in particular was an important resource, and were very careful to allow cut areas to re-grow.
The village continued to grow, and by 1992 there were seven families living in Tumani Tenda. With the help of a Dutch lady working for the Voluntary Service Overseas, they applied, and got, funding from the European Development Fund. This paid for the digging of six concrete wells, and for barbed wire fencing of the garden. Realising the benefits of working together as a community, the villagers started to envisage a project for the future. They'd seen tourists on small boats going up and down the river on occasion, and had an idea to build a residential camp to accommodate overnight visitors. When the villagers won an award from the National Environment Agency for 'Best Protection of Forest Environment', in 1996, the idea took a step closer to becoming reality. Awarded $7000 worth of materials, with the stipulation that it should be put towards a community project, the camp presented the ideal project.
The money paid for 50 bags of cement, enough to build a toilet block and start work on some huts, but it wasn't quite enough. Help came from a Norwegian couple, Guru and Helga Lino, who became unpaid technical advisors. As well as giving building advice, the couple employed villagers as labourers to cut trees and palms to build their new restaurant. The money earned went back into the project, and slowly the camp took shape.
In 1999, the first visitors stayed at Kachokorr Camp - Kachokorr meaning 'to take care'. They were tourism students from Sussex University in the UK, closely followed by Scandinavian music students. Sousan Wafaogo, the Minister of Tourism, officially opened the camp the same year.
The camp's link with the village proved key to its success. Each family 'donated' at least one man to the camp, with larger families giving more, providing 16 voluntary staff altogether. The whole community contributed to decisions made about the camp. The families agreed to use the profits from the camp to make improvements to the village. The villagers themselves, especially the children, learned to treat tourists neither as guests nor oddities; they realised that part of the appeal of the camp would be for visitors to see village life without being pestered or feted.
Benefits of Success
So far, the project has been a great success. The camp pays all the taxes of the villagers, sponsors students in the school (which it paid for too), has paid for building of a bakery, buys seedlings and leaves enough to cover emergencies. The old oxcart has now been replaced with a car bought by the camp; in the past, goods from the village fetched poor prices at market because they arrived there too late! Future plans include a health clinic and a field irrigation system; luxuries in this poor country.
In fact, Tumani Tenda has been so successful that it has become something of a flagship ecotourism project. Villagers from all over The Gambia visit on a regular basis to find out about the project to learn how it is run. Villages in The Gambia suffer due to emigration, with young people feeling their future lies in the towns and cities; but Tumani Tenda has shown the traditional way of life can adapt to accommodate and embrace the modern world.
Awesome - the most chilled out place in West Africa - never did manage to catch a fish, though!
The tranquillity of Tumani Tenda is not the only reason to visit. You pay a flat rate for all meals and accommodation, and once at the camp you can choose from a whole range of activities for which you pay extra. Each of these gives an insight into a different part of village life, and most also connect the visitor with the natural world in some way. When you arrive, a guide welcomes you and will stay with you for the whole of your visit. He'll explain about the village and the different activities and trips on offer.
Village visit. You'll have the history of the village explained and take a look around the main buildings, meeting a few characters as you go. Visiting the school is a highlight of this trip. You can link this with a farming trip, watching or helping the guys in the fields. Most visitors do this activity at the start, because it gives you a good introduction to the place.
Fishing trip. Go in a dug-out canoe around the mangrove creeks, either net fishing at dusk or hook fishing in the day. The trip provides a magical way to explore the river, and have a go at throwing the net yourself.
Forest trip. You can learn how the villagers manage the forest, and perhaps see some birds and monkeys. You'll also find out what foods and natural medicines the woods have to offer.
Birdwatching. Best at first light, this fantastic trip through the mangroves allows you to see various waders and colourful birds, such as bee-eaters. This is one birdwatching trip that isn't just for birders!
Visit the bee-keeper. An activity for the evening, potentially restricted by bee activity. The bee-keeper will take you to the hives and explain how they're looked after to maximise honey production.
Salt-making. This is only available between March and May, when the weather is at its hottest; the rest of the year, it's too cool or wet to make salt quickly enough. You might just have to admire the large salt piles instead...
Oyster collecting. Go out in a dug-out canoe with your cutlass and help to carve oysters from the mangroves. A dry-season activity (November to May) dependent on the tides - if you have the choice, try to go when there are spring tides, as the low tide makes harvesting very efficient.
Visit the healer. Go into the village to meet the marabout, and learn about traditional medicine.
Tie and dye. If you've ever wanted to learn how to make funky clothes, this is for you - try to arrange it as soon as you arrive, though, as one of the women from the village will come down to the camp for the activity. If you don't give plenty of notice, you might find she's gone off to the market!
Cooking lesson. You're pretty much helping to make your own dinner, but it's great to learn how to prepare dinner with no ovens or grills - it's just you and the fire!
Cultural performance. Again, this needs to be arranged in advance as it involves villagers. They will re-create a ceremony for you, which has an authenticity you'll never find in the resorts. Wedding and naming ceremonies are the most popular.
How To Get There
Perfect in its simplicity - a great contrast to the over-developed tourist resorts.
You can get a bush taxi3 heading for Bulok or Bwiam from either Serrekunda or Brikama. However, if you're not short of cash it's much better to take a proper taxi - a tourist taxi from the resorts should cost you around 1000 dalasis, or £20. Remember that the driver probably won't know exactly where it is, so when the paved road ends after Kafuta keep your eyes peeled for a signposted left turn. The village itself lies about two miles from the main road. If you do get a taxi, it's wise to arrange for the driver to pick you up as well, even if that's in a few days' time - there is always a long queue for the very infrequent bush taxis at the end of the track.