There’s nothing quite as special as a relaxing island holiday… soft sandy beaches, warm ocean, adventurous activities, and plenty of down time. But the thing that makes all this all the more memorable are the wonderful people that make it happen – and the communities that live there.
I was at the barefoot luxury Azura Benguerra Island, located a stone throw from Vilanculos, off the Mozambique coastline.
The lodge is one of only a handful of resorts in Mozambique where the local community are major contributors and stakeholders. The local community was involved right from the start with the building process. Rather than bring in outside contractors with no benefit to the local community, Azura trained the local islanders in building skills, which have enabled them to find further employment elsewhere. Azura was built by hand, using just one cement mixer and one truck, with everything other than sand for the building coming in on fleets of local dhows operated the community.
Sustainable building materials were used where possible – the bricks were made onsite by the community, the window frames and doors made locally, the roofing jekka (the shaggy thatch) was sourced from local women and some of the huge supporting beams came from trees that had fallen in a storm. Many of the furnishings were handmade by the local community, and others were made by disadvantaged communities across Southern Africa.
Solar powered showers were installed at the villas from the start, and an exciting new addition is installation of a 400Kw Solar plant with 3,200m2 of solar panels, feeding Tesla Battery Banks, to take power generation at the hotel Carbon Neutral. This is the first solar plant of its kind in Mozambique, and with private pools at each of our air-conditioned villas, it was a 2-year quest to find the right solar power provider. Tesla offered up an innovative tech solution, and Azura is the first business in Mozambique to make use of Tesla power. And they have a state-of-the-art sewerage treatment plant to recycle their grey water for the gardens to prevent environmental seepage.
Employing locally is also high on the priority list at Azura, with approximately 70% of their staff coming from either the island, or nearby areas in Mozambique, Pedro, our butler/host, was just one of several staff members that we had the pleasure of interacting with, another was Paulo our guide on the Azura Island Drive.
The Island Drive is a must do as, besides being wonderfully informative and fun, it gives one a great perspective of Benguerra Island, the communities that call it home as well as the great work Azura’s Rainbow Fund does for the community.
After a hearty breakfast we set off in the Azura Landover with our guide Paulo & driver Nelson. Traversing narrow sandy roads through natural bush we soon passed one of the three small villages on the island. Kids waved with exuberance and adults went about their chores undeterred.
In addition to learning about the natural environment, we had the opportunity to visit the local clinic where Paulo explained that healthcare was always a challenge, so the building of the first Community Clinic and Nurses’ Residence on Benguerra Island was welcomed and is a much-needed facility. The health clinic and its registered nurses provide essential services to local residents who previously had little or no access to basic healthcare or medication. The new much-needed maternity block, which was funded by the Azura Rainbow Fund has made a huge difference in alleviating potential problems for pregnant women that would have required a boat trip to Vilanculos for medical help.
We then visit the Benguerra Island Primary School, it’s weekend so we are allowed to alight for a quick tour with teacher Palmo. He tells us that there are eight teachers for 510 kids in four classrooms! We walk through the classrooms and Palmo gives us a mini history lesson, and I can imagine the kids concentrating and learning in earnest. There is a library with a wide selection of books and posters on the walls – a great learning environment indeed.
Walking outside I can imagine the chatter of kids and exuberant laughter as they play. There is a vegetable garden and some fruit trees, but the need for water is always a challenge, especially when the pump breaks down. Walking through the school and its grounds has certainly been a humbling experience!
Later that afternoon I have the opportunity to chat to Reaz Ahtai, Azura’s Guest Relations Manager and Rainbow Fund champion. He tells me that in 2008 the Rainbow Fund built Benguerra Island’s first school, including the teachers’ accommodation and an office for the headmaster. The school also has a football pitch and a sanitary block with running water that is used by the school and the local community alike.
“Our school was built in the centre of the island as all the kids who attend must walk to school each day. By building housing for the teachers, we were able to encourage some teachers to come across from the mainland to increase the number of teachers to its current total of eight. They teach kids from Grade One to Grade Seven the Mozambican national curriculum.”
He tells me that although the school started off quite small, there are now 510 kids attending this academic year, and to accommodate so many students the school operates on split shifts and so they have some students who attend in the morning and then another group come in the afternoon. “Twice a year we take some time to celebrate what it is to be young, and we have a party with fun games like three legged races and apple bobbing, plus cultural performances from the kids, lunch and then presents for the children plus donations for the school.”
The opportunity for learning doesn’t stop at Grade seven, as at the end of each academic year five students who have graduated with the best grades and the best attitude get a bursary to go to the mainland to continue their education at the expense of the Rainbow Fund – they get full board and their school fees paid for them.
“Now we have thirty-six children’s participating in this programme. The first four have just returned to their school to do Year Nine after successfully completing Year Eight. Then another four are the children who were chosen by the Benguerra Island school teachers they are just doing their first year of boarding school. This programme is something that guests seem particularly interested in sponsoring.
We have four students currently doing a vocational course, two are doing industrial electricity, one business management and human resources and the other is doing bar and restaurant (catering services). They are very promising students, as they are achieving very high points and they make the community proud and us as well for being very committed with the program.”
Reaz tells me that throughout the years they have had, and still have challenges with girls from the community, as when they attend the Rainbow Fund sponsorship program many don’t finish school. Most of the reason being pregnancies and getting married early due to traditional matters. “We are working hard with the help of some members of the community to change this sad reality for the girls here on Benguerra island as they also do not approve children’s marriage. We all understand that is a long battle to pursue to change this reality.”
The Rainbow Fund also partners with other organisations whose ethos and DNA is working with underprivileged communities to help and create better opportunities for them in terms of education and training.
Seeing the humble homesteads dotted alongside the sandy road on our Benguerra Island tour emphasised the huge importance of tourism for local communities. In addition to the obvious employment provided, it’s the additional benefits of healthcare and education that the Azura Rainbow Fund provides that has a huge positive impact within the Island community. It is always heart-warming to see tourism businesses investing in their local communities and being an incredible force for good.
Azura guests are encouraged to contribute to the Rainbow Fund, and most do so happily. On departure we are asked if we would like to contribute to their community Covid-19 vaccination initiative which will start by vaccinating the family members of their staff and then rolling out to the greater community to help protect them and their families and relatives against Covid-19. In addition to this a high priority is encouraging all the island’s kids to attend school which in the long term opens new horizons for the future of the local Benguerra Island community.
Click HERE to read the article in the digital mag…