How to build a lodge – Chole Mjini

You set sail for Chole island’s mangrove-lined shores, and as the first treehouses hove into view, the last vestiges of the 21st Century recede: no roads, no cars, no electricity, no computers, no mobile phones. Just a star-filled sky, flickering candles, superb food, great company, and the timeless luxuries of space, privacy, and utter peace.

Some call Chole Mjini magical, others call it one of Africa’s most remarkable hotels and it has even been referred to as a Robinson Crusoe Island experience. To me Chole Mjini is just simply unique and a fantastic example of true sustainable tourism.

Arrival at Chole Mjini

With only seven treehouses, carefully placed and designed, your privacy is completely assured although each is open to the elements. Your comfortable king-size beds are placed as a throne-like centre-piece and every single thatched platform is reached via sandy paths that lead through the natural vegetation. All treehouses have views of the sea, but some are close enough that you can be lulled to sleep by the sound of the tide trickling back through the mangrove roots. Most treehouses even have a second level to accommodate children or to spend a lazy afternoon.

So how did this unique, Robinson Crusoe, barefoot paradise experience come about? When did it happen? Whose idea was it? How long did it take to build?

Anne and Jean de Villiers simply wanted to create the kind of place they would have been happy to discover themselves. And this is how it went:

Anne and I were drawn to Chole by the dhows built on the island by fundis, rumoured to the best in East Africa. We commissioned one, and while our dhow took shape, fell irrevocably in love with the island, its wonderful people, and the waters that surround it. The District Authorities, who didn’t encounter many wazungu in those days, somehow thought we were investors, and offered us a site on Chole to develop a hotel, even though Anne and I knew absolutely nothing about the business of hotels!

We had plenty of ideas, especially around how tourism could improve the lives of the Chole villagers, but no ambition to build a hotel until a serendipitous encounter with Emerson, who created Zanzibar’s first boutique hotel, led to a plan whereby he would build and ultimately run one on Chole.

Unfortunately this partnership did not work out and 1996 we decided to move to Chole for a year or two and build the kind of place that we would have liked to find on first arriving in such a beautiful place. Something simple yet at the same time elegant and comfortable. We wanted it to be appropriate to the site and blend in with the bush, ruins and mangrove forest, be open to nature, but still secure and able to withstand the occasional tropical storm. We wanted it to reflect ourselves, the kind of people we think we are, or would like to be.

We decided to sell the generators our partner had purchased and forego power tools – to build slowly and only with local skills, labour and materials, so that almost all our development capital would be spent on Chole Island.

Chole’s unique architecture and furniture

With only architect’s preliminary sketches and no proper drawings, technical specifications or engineering experience to rely on, I had to make it up as I went along, making mistakes, modifications, endless sketches and sucking the stress calculations out of a past interest in mathematics, cajoling and fighting with the fundis in extremely poor Kiswahili.

The concepts of vertical, horizontal, parallel, square, level and plumb are all completely irrelevant to building dhows and also all described by just a single word, sawa, which also means okay, or good! I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out a problem, constantly reminded that in all my years at school I only ever failed woodwork and technical drawing, and that my previous education and professional life spent designing and synthesizing molecules that are too small ever to be seen by human eyes, in sophisticated laboratories with cutting edge technologies, had been a less than ideal preparation for building over-scaled wooden houses in the trees on a remote tropical island utilizing craftsmen that are extremely skilled at something else, hand tools I’d only ever seen in books before and the need to communicate in a foreign language to make it all sawa.

While I was serving an apprenticeship in my new trade as a builder of treehouses, Anne was doing the really difficult work of building bridges and relations with the villagers via the many different community development projects we had initiated, getting the primary school and hospital completed, staffed and up & running, clearing bush and landscaping, sorting through the mountain of unfinished, unfiled and often unintelligible, half-rotten paperwork left by our anarchic predecessor, training islanders with no formal schooling to work in a hotel and bringing up and teaching our four-year-old hero Didier and our newborn sweetheart, Maya.

De Villiers family: Anne & Maya (front) – Didier & Jean (back)

Each treehouse took from six months to a year to complete, because they were built completely by hand, using traditional tools and utilizing materials sourced only from traders living on Chole. Time slipped away, to bureaucracy, to malaria and hepatitis and the universal building plague. We only bought poles and wood that were accompanied by a valid license from the appropriate authority, which slowly excluded many suppliers, and in the end most of the poles and wood came from the nearby Rufiji River delta. Each tree for poles and planks was cut by hand, sawn into planks by hand in a saw pit and transported to Chole by dhow, cured by us for at least twelve months and then ripped and planed by hand.

Slowly but surely the houses took shape, and four years later we were ready to receive our first guests, thanks to the immense skill and raw intelligence of the boat-builders of Chole, who turned my often less than practical ideas into reality: “Sawa na asanteni wafundi Ali Kingi, Mzee Mbuyu, Mzee Abdurahman, Farahani na Rashidi.”

Thanks to Jean de Villiers for his story on how Chole Mjini was built.


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