Crossing the Lake of Stars landed us on the pristine shores of Manda Wilderness, a tropical lakeside paradise in northern Mozambique. We spent a night sleeping on the wooden deck of the Ilala ferry on a 12-hour trip across Lake Malawi, known in Mozambique as Lago Niassa. After staying in a beach hut at Mango Drift on the idyllic island of Likoma, we caught a boat across the last stretch of water to Mchenga Nkwichi Beach, meaning ‘squeaky sands’.
The wild shores on the Mozambican side of Lake Niassa are almost completely undeveloped. Working together with the local Nyanja ‘people of the lake’, the Manda Wilderness Project is rooted in the idea of an African three-legged pot, which needs three equally-strong legs to stand. The three parts of the project are responsible tourism, conservation and community development, benefitting the lakeshore villagers and their environment through eco-tourism.
Set on the shores of Lake Niassa, Nkwichi Lodge is hidden beneath the trees around an unspoilt stretch of sandy white beach. We stayed in the spacious and superbly crafted Niassa chalet, one of only six chalets and two private houses that are spaced apart for complete privacy. With its huge bed hewn out of old tree trunks and upside-down canoes for tables, our stone-and-thatch chalet was made to blend seamlessly into the Niassa bush.
Footprints in the sand are one of the few imprints the lodge leaves behind, with its solar power, wind turbine and composting system. Nkwichi sources fresh seafood from the local fishermen and organic fruit and vegetables come from their own demonstration farm, with all of the kitchen waste used as compost. Nothing goes to waste at Nkwichi, where the villagers use old tin cans as graters and we drank fresh lake water out of recycled wine bottles.
The lodge employs up to 60 staff members from the surrounding villages, each of whom take care of around 15 other family members. This means that Nkwichi supports the day-to-day life of over 1,500 Nyanja people, who otherwise struggle to survive by cultivating maize and fishing the lake in dugout canoes. The knock-on benefits from the lodge help improve the lives of up to 11,000 people, more than half the population of the 16 villages in the area.
The Manda Wilderness Community Trust (MWCT) works together with local villagers to develop schools, health clinics and small businesses. MWCT actively involves 20,000 Nyanja people in the project, many of whom survive on less than $100 USD per year. The Umoji Association, meaning ‘as one’, represents all of the 16 villages in the area, each with their own development committee responsible for discussing and approving what is needed to improve village life.
The villagers from Mala chose to build a new school, hoping to give their children a chance at a better life in an area where most people live hand-to-mouth. We were shown around the classrooms at Mala and watched the students play games in the sandy schoolyard. Many of the newly-built schools are also being used to offer adult literacy classes, providing a second chance for villagers who missed out on an education during the civil war.
Ravaged by two decades of fighting and famine, the remote Lago District is home to some of the poorest communities in Mozambique. In the lakeside village of Cobue, we visited the first maternity clinic in the area and the new mill, which enables villagers to grind their own maize. Holding true to the old adage that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him fish, MWCT provides carpentry skills training and runs nutrition-based cooking courses for women.
Each year over 60 farmers learn about permaculture at the demonstration farm, where they are taught how to grow better crops and improve nutrition. The Nyanja people are traditionally subsistence farmers, producing just enough cassava, maize and rice to feed their families and supplementing this with fish caught in the lake. On our tour of the garden, we were taken aback by the sheer abundance and variety of organic produce being grown in the sandy soil.
Living off the land and lake means that the local villagers work hard all year-round, but they also make time for community activities and events. A football tournament set up by MWCT in partnership with Fit4kidz has proven popular, and the annual dugout canoe race is a highlight on the Nyanja calendar. The Choir Festival brings all 16 villages together for a celebration that has everybody on their feet, with hundreds of voices uplifted in African song.
Situated in a remote corner of Mozambique, Nkwichi Lodge is surrounded by a vast community-owned conservation area of African bush. The Manda Wilderness Community Conservation Area (MWCCA) covers an area of 120,000 hectares where wildlife is slowly recovering after being decimated by the civil war. Animals in the reserve include buffalo, zebra, elephant, lion, sable and wild dogs, and we woke one morning to find leopard tracks on the beach.
Villagers are encouraged to work together to make the most of their natural resources without overusing them. The local community association, Umoji, legally owns and manages the Manda Game Reserve, and each of the 16 villages hold the title to their own community land. As part of their commitment to conserving the rivers, woodlands and savannah, the Nyanja people have agreed to stop hunting wild animals and cutting wood for export.
MWCT not only works to preserve the Mozambican bush but also Lake Niassa, which hosts over 1,000 species of tropical fish. Overfishing is damaging the lake’s ecosystem and with the support of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), an aquatic reserve has been established along the length of the Mozambican shoreline. Lake Niassa is the first freshwater lake under protection in Mozambique, securing freshwater fish supplies for years to come.
Our days at Nkwichi Lodge drifted by in a dreamy haze as we soaked up the barefoot luxury of this unique beach and bush experience. When we weren’t visiting the various community projects, we spent our time sunbathing and snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of the lake. Swimming around in the warm water felt like being inside a large aquarium, as Lake Niassa has the richest variety of tropical fish of any freshwater lake in the world.
By embracing an eco-sensitive approach, the Manda Wilderness Project works hand-in-hand with local villagers to protect the Niassa wilderness, moving towards more sustainable farming and fishing practices. Staying at Nkwichi gave us the opportunity to explore the Mozambique shoreline that the Nyanja people call home. We spent our last night on a secluded beach, falling asleep under the stars to the sound of the waves lapping gently on the lakeshore.