Kosi Forest Lodge, situated near the upper lakes of the Kosi Lake system in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is set within a beautiful sand forest on the banks of Lake Shengeza. In the heat of the day the shade of the huge Zulu podberry tree (Dialium schlechteri) is most welcome, as is the refreshing drink and chilled face cloth, followed by a warm handshake and broad smile from Blessing Mngomezulu, the Lodge Manager. Blessing is a local man and has been part of the Kosi Bay Lodge team right from the start…
We were here to experience the wonders of the Kosi upper lakes system and the wonderful hospitality of the Kosi Forest team. But while here we had the opportunity to chat to Blessing… whose love and respect for his grandmother had him searching for sticks to make a chicken run, which led him to digging holes, constructing a lodge and a building a future.
“It was in November, and my Grandmother was planting mealies, and the chickens were eating the mealies as they started growing. She asked me to go out and get some sticks in the bush so that I could build a chicken run for her so we could lock away all the chickens. Because if they eat all of those mealies it means for that season we won’t have any harvest, which means we won’t have any food since there was no one at home that was working.”
While out looking for wood, Blessing tells that he met up with some of his friends. And while they were walking around Lake Shengeza, they “met up with a bakkie driven by one white man with a dog on the back of the bakkie. This man, he stopped us and he greeted us in Zulu and said that he was looking for help to offload some tents and material for building.” This man was Brett Gehren and he explained that he was going to be building a lodge and that the community would benefit from it.
I glance around me, we’re sitting under the huge Zulu podberry tree, with its thick trunk and gnarled branches. It was under this tree, where the bar now is, that Blessing and his friends cleared an area for him to set up his tents and helped dig a hole for a well to provide much needed drinking water in an area where the summer sun beats down relentlessly. It was weekend he told us, and said they were told to return on Monday as the local Chief was going to employ people to construct the lodge. Blessing still had the chore of having to find sticks for the chicken run, which he knew was important, especially because “he didn’t want”, as he says “my Grandmother ‘getting behind my ear”. I smile, relating to that ‘nagging’ feeling.
Monday came and the Chief, standing on a stepladder, gazed across 300-odd hopeful people. Blessing tells us that surprisingly he was the third person chosen – “after the Chief’s son, and then a close relative”, he says with a smile. In addition to being one of the 15 people involved in the construction of the lodge, Blessing acted as a translator for Vlam, the site manager, when Brett was off-site, and helped foster trust between local suppliers and these ‘white men’, considering the history of the country.
Further to that, with his local knowledge Blessing was able to help Brett and Vlam establish activities for the lodge, such as snorkelling, diving, canoeing and walking. He smiles telling us how he helped Vlam learn Zulu bird names whilst he learnt the English name… this interest and knowledge in trees, birds and the natural environment led to him being re-employed as a local guide, and maintenance man. As his knowledge, confidence and experience grew, so did his responsibilities and qualifications – he did tourism training and achieved the highest guiding certificate available.
“When Thonga Beach Lodge started I went to help out as a lot of the people there had never worked in the tourism industry”, what was meant to be a couple of months ended up being six years. On his return to Kosi Forest Lodge he was offered the position as assistant manager followed a few years later after proving himself capable, lodge manager.
He tells with a broad smile “you know that the wind always hits the tallest trees, so I was very afraid that I would become the tallest tree, and that when any wind comes along it’s going to knock me down! But I did it, and it’s been nearly five years now that I’ve been running Kosi Forest Lodge as the manager”.
When asked what difference this has all made in his life, he says that he appreciates the huge learning curve the educational aspect made, and that he has been able to share his knowledge with his family. He emphasises the financial benefits, not only to him and his family, but the community at large, from employment, the purchasing of resources – from onions and pineapples to thatching grass, as well as local entertainers when required.
“And your Grandmother’s chickens?” I ask… he replies with a smile saying that when he got the job the chicken run wasn’t finished, and “she was mad at me, and didn’t care about the job, just about her mealies as she was worried that she wouldn’t have food for the next season! You store your harvest, eat what you need, but keep some for the next season” – this being the nature of subsistence farming.
Then he said something profound, “when you throw your seeds, you do so expecting something”.
Much like Brett and Paige Gehren with Isibindi Africa Lodges… and much like Blessing himself, in the way he sowed his knowledge, work ethic and good values.