Sue Watt visits Tongole Wilderness Lodge and discovers how one family’s tragedy has brought hope and help to communities near Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Central Malawi.
Tongole Wilderness Lodge is located in the heart of Malawi’s oldest and largest wildlife reserve, Nkhotakota, on the banks of the Bua River. It’s a brilliant destination for hiking, canoeing, fishing and fly-camping. Elephants frequently come to the lodge for a drink in the river, and birders will love the 280 species of birds here. But I discovered that Tongole in itself is reason to visit.
It wasn’t the fabulous setting that struck me most when I arrived, nor the beautiful lounge and dining area on the vast wooden deck, with its spiral staircase swirling upwards to another deck overlooking the river. It was something intangible, something about the sense of the place that made me feel calm and soothed the moment I walked in. This isn’t meant as some kind of brochure hyperbole – visiting so many places in my job as a travel writer, sometimes the feel of a place is far more important than the latest in designer décor or trendy toiletries.
Perhaps the soul of Tongole comes from the reason for its existence, born out of tragedy with the death of a young Malawian guy in the UK and now providing hope and help to his childhood communities, where most people live well below the poverty line. Vitu Kalanga was killed in a car accident on the 31st January 2007. His girlfriend was the daughter of a British philanthropist, David Cole, who on meeting Vitu’s father Bentry, struck up a lasting friendship. Together with another philanthropist David Gridley, they developed Tongole Lodge and its associated Tongole Foundation to benefit local people in Vitu’s memory.
Over 100 people from those communities were employed in the building of the lodge, using local resources and materials, and, completed in 2011, it now employs 30. Through fundraising and guest donations, the foundation is assisting three primary schools in the area, with proposals to build another.
As an example, I visited Mwala wa Tongole school where the genuine connection between lodge and locals was evident in the warm welcome we received. The school was holding a ceremony to thank the foundation for a new classroom block to replace makeshift classrooms where, come rain or shine, children sat on bricks under the shade of trees. Now completed, attendance rates have not surprisingly shot up and more children than ever are moving on to higher education. Children and parents are learning the importance of conservation too, now that they can see how wildlife bringing tourism to the area can have a direct benefit to their lives.
Each year, the Tongole Foundation (www.thetongolefoundation.org) works closely with two “gappers” on a gap year programme from Arsenal in the Community, part of Arsenal FC, who head into the community and schools to coach football and teach English, something Vitu would have loved to have been involved with. “He was a very strong football player,” his father Bentry told me. “And he was an ambitious young man who wanted to train as a Doctor. He valued education so much and that's what led his family to migrate to the UK so that he received a good education to achieve his dreams and ambitions.”
“I imagine Vitu would be very humbled about how far we have gone in remembrance of his life,” Bentry continued. “He was a humble, cheerful, smart, smiley young man, and loved to joke around! He was very encouraging to others – and he would have loved working with the community in the Tongole Foundation. He had a lot of love to give.”
The Tongole Foundation is clearly a fitting legacy to Vitu, and a beautiful way to be remembered.