Mission sits down with Desnee Joseph, the co-manager of Bomani Tented Lodge which is a subset of Imvelo Safari Lodges, to learn about the benefits of the unique brand of ecotourism it offers and the positive impacts that her work gives to the surrounding community
Give us a background on yourself—where you grew up, how you came to pursue a career in tourism, what led you to ecotourism and Imvelo/Bomai Tented Lodge, what you do here and why you feel it is important.
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe—in the second largest city, called Bulawayo—where I got a private education. After I completed my O’level [at] Cambridge, I went straight into the hospitality industry, working in restaurants to earn a bit of pocket money. The industry grew on me. I then decided to take on tourism and hospitality as main subject at school, which I completed with a advanced diploma. I moved to Victoria Falls and worked in a booking agency offering all activities in the Falls. My boss also owned a lodge, Nehimba, which I would do relief management at, and the more I learned about the wild the more I fell in love. With my love for animals and my newfound love for Hwange National Park, when the job opportunity came up with Imvelo I jumped at it. It was a dream job being in the hospitality industry as well as being surrounded by wildlife and being able to share my love for both with the different guests we have coming through camp. Whilst working at Bomani I came to realize the importance of the role Imvelo plays with its heavy involvement with the community, and the huge impact that Imvelo has made by doing so. To be better we all need to live and work together.
How is Imvelo different from other tourism companies?
Imvelo’s slogan is “Connecting People and Nature”—not only by bringing visitors to see Africa’s wildlife, but also by providing them with an opportunity to meet the local people. However, the other major element of our vision is to bring benefits to the local people from having these visitors in their area and connecting the local people with the local nature in a beneficial way. Local nature includes big game, which can be dangerous and destructive, and therefore normally makes unwelcome neighbors for rural people. Through tourism, we can show them a reason to tolerate and even protect wildlife.
There’s a discussion surrounding tourism that is often split between praise of bringing in new business and critique of affluent people “invading” countries who do not have the resources to accommodate them, while basically taking from their resources and adding nothing in return. Imvelo’s business model basically prohibits the negative impacts from happening—how do they do so, and how do you aid in positive and informed ecotourism?
There is no doubt that the local community welcomes the visitors to their area with open arms. Yes, they benefit formally with lease fees and licenses paid to the Council, but we’ve found that the philanthropy of our visitors far exceeds anything the company can do in its own right. So, we’ve ended up with a team within Imvelo who work with the community using donated resources. We’ve built classrooms and teachers’ houses, drilled and maintained boreholes, worked to upgrade teaching skills, and [created] a feeding program. The list is endless and gets bigger every year.
A significant contribution that Imvelo gives is clean water, which is incredibly beneficial to the communities as well as to the environment at large. What is the impact of this contribution?
We have drilled some 80 boreholes since 2011—five for rural schools with some 300 pupils each—as well as equipped, maintained, and repaired them, benefitting close to 20,000 people. This year we have sited and [are] just about to drill a borehole for a new clinic to be built in Ngamo village. The impact on education and health in a remote community neglected by central government cannot be underestimated.
You are the manager of the Bomani Tented Lodge, which is one of the destinations that tourists can choose to visit. How does this lodge, specifically, engage with the values set forth by Imvelo?
We have a program to employ local youths who are keen on becoming staff and guides—in Zimbabwe, the requirements for the full guide’s license are notoriously stringent, and it usually takes many years to qualify. So, the guides who take our guests into nearby villages may well have grown up there. The best means of engaging guests is by taking them to local villages and letting them see for themselves; ask questions; and participate in activities in the schools, such as discussions, walking or driving children to school, or drawing. We encourage all our guests to take at least one village visit during their time with us, and often the feedback is that it is the most memorable event of their African safari. The youth learn from us all—the ways of life and how to be a better human, the culture that comes from meeting people from different places in the world, understanding other ways of life and to see the world as something bigger. So many times guests have said to me that they learnt something by going to the village, but those beautiful little children take away so much more from these visits.
What are some of the positive things that Bomani Tented Lodge, specifically, gives to the surrounding community and environment?
We have built eight double classroom blocks and 11 teacher’s cottages. We have run programs to upgrade the teaching skills of the teachers teaching English as a second language. Our annual Smile Safari brings top dentists from Europe to give free treatments to hundreds of rural people. In 2015, the team of dentists treated a record number of 2,500 people—children and adults—from fillings to removals. Last year, with the failure of crops due to drought, we provided one meal every school day to the children attending 11 schools. While Imvelo manages the logistics, the major capital outlay for these programs comes voluntarily from our guests and supporters.
What are some specific activities that tourists are able to do in order to engage with the surrounding environment and communities in ways that are positive for everyone?
Most guests visit the village, and the school during school term. This year we had a group of Australians who got stuck in and fixed up and redecorated a classroom, and that went so well that a second group is coming again later this year. Another group of guests who enjoyed soccer wanted to challenge the children to a game of soccer, which was great for them as that is the favored sport in the area, and of course more exciting when they can show off their skills. The children did so well that the group sent them a beautiful shield to congratulate the win. We have also had D.A.R.T. (Dete Animal Rescue Trust) come and help us rescue injured animals. We informed them that the animal had a snare and they came to assist. When D.A.R.T. came out they managed to dart, successfully remove the snare, and treat the wound.
Environmental awareness is very important to Imvelo and likely of those who choose to book safaris through this company. How does the Bomani Tented Lodge allow tourists to engage with the surrounding nature in a way that is positive and informed?
Zimbabwean guides are the best in Africa, and at Bomani it is all about the unforgettable experience. The whole team are super friendly and helpful. There is a lot to experience-game drives, brush walks, underground hide—and the guides make sure you learn about what you are seeing, and have a lot of fun at the same time.
What is your mission in your work for Imvelo and at the Bomani Tented Lodge?
To give every guest the best experience possible, and to make sure our staff also feels rewarded in their work and enjoy being part of the team. It’s very important that we do what we love for the longest possible time we have on this beautiful earth.
By Bailey Calfee