View the Sierra Leone guide
“What on earth is a luxury shack?” my wife asked me after I received my booking confirmation from Tribe Wanted Sierra Leone. I didn’t have a clue; yet compared to eco-tourism and sustainable travel, a luxury shack is a fairly simple concept. I’m lucky that my wife accepted my mumbled explanations, otherwise she might have been annoyed that I had booked us a holiday with no idea what it actually was.
Tribe Wanted is a difficult thing to describe. Not just because of the concepts behind it, but because each person’s experience of the project is unique. The project is attached to a real fishing village called John Obey, but Tribe Wanted is also a community in its own right. There is plenty going on both within Tribe Wanted, the village and indeed the wider area. The tribe managers are good at keeping you informed about what you can do; anything from what work is happening today to a football match against a neighbouring village. From there it is up to each tribe member to decide how to spend their time. Like any tribe, different members bring different skills, so most will play to their strengths. If you prefer to relax in a hammock or on the beach then that is just fine too.
Our week in John Obey got off to a great start as we arrived at the village just in time for lunch. Meals are announced by a ringing bell and are taken around a communal table under the shade of the trees. Lunch is local food as the meal is shared with the lads from the village who work at Tribe Wanted. Most of them are working hard on building the earth domes or in the gardens, so portions are generous. Everyone is keen to chat, so you can make plenty of new friends while tucking into your fiery groundnut (peanut) stew. The evening meal tends to be fish (caught that day) served with plantain as well as plenty of rice, couscous and salad. All meals are included so a week with Tribe Wanted is really easy to budget for, as long as you don’t want too many star beers there aren’t really any additional costs.
After a hot and dusty drive to John Obey we felt ready for a shower so went see what we made of the bucket showers. The set up is simple but ingenious. A shower head is attached to the bottom of a metal bucket which is winched over your head by a pulley attached to a convenient shaped tree branch. Your modesty is preserved by a bamboo screen but if you are tall enough your head will pop out the top for an amazing view of the lagoon. Showering outside is very refreshing and overcomes the sticky feeling you can get in the tropics. Even straight from the well the water temperature is fine, but an old hand gave us a tip in case we missed our home comforts. Simply wait until a little later in the day when the sun is more powerful, fill the bucket about an hour before you plan to shower et voila, a hot shower!
The water for your shower comes from the well by jerry can. Every time I went to fetch water at least one of the local lads offered to carry it for me, so if you don’t want to haul water you won’t have to, but I found it an interesting part of the experience. The walk is only around 100m, far shorter than the distance many people in Sierra Leone travel for clean water, but that burning feeling in my arm really made me think about how much water I really needed for my shower. Even since I got home I find I am using less which is probably a good thing. All the water used in Tribe Wanted is carried from the well to tanks where it is stored. I noticed the guys who do that are all pretty well built, so thought why not give it a go myself. It’s certainly a work out and although sadly I still didn’t end the week with a six pack, this is the first holiday I have been on where I actually lost weight!
One of the other ideals behind Tribe Wanted is community tourism, tourism that involves and benefits the local community. The integration between the project and the village is very natural and that evening some of the fishermen from the village were hanging out chatting to the team who work in the kitchen. We got talking to them and they offered us a Krio lesson. The language is quite fun, heavily based in English but there are influences from other European languages (particularly French) and also indigenous languages. At times though, it is just English spoken in a very ‘to the point’ way. I was particularly pleased when they taught me how to ask my wife for chop, or food. “Cook for me some food!” I thought about trying it when I got home, but decided on balance I didn’t want a black eye. We had some drinks with the guys and the lesson descended into general banter. They asked us to come down to the village to have lunch with them the next day.
Lunch in the village was just one of the many fantastic experiences during our week. Our friends Ali and Perfect Man caught lunch that morning. We were also joined by their neighbour Mariatoo and her son Johnny, a toddler with a constant smile on his face. The huts the guys live in are very basic compared to the accommodation at Tribe Wanted, but there was a real togetherness about the community. Where their handful of buildings met they had built a table and chairs from sticks which were bound together, this is where they share meals. We gathered around the table and tucked into lobster, fish and crab which were marinated sauce and barbequed on the fire. The guys all come from Tokeh but spend the dry season in John Obey as the fishing is better. Before the war Tokeh was home to a luxury resort, the guys told me they learned the recipe for the sauce from one of the chefs who worked there. It was just as good as you would expect.
Most of our week at Tribe Wanted was spent within John Obey, but when we did venture out we had some fantastic trips. One of the highlights was a trip to the market with Elijah the kitchen manager. My wife wanted to learn to make banana bread Sierra Leone style so Elijah suggested she come with him to the market in Waterloo to get the ingredients. As you might expect the market is a whirlwind of colour, noise and smells and shopping there was a lot more fun that a trip to Tesco. I had expected to stay out of the baking itself, planning to get more involved during the tasting process. My attention was caught though when Omo, one of the girls who work in the kitchen, lit a fire before heading down to the beach to get some sand. She filled a large cooking pot with sand and left it heating over the fire while she went back and finished the cake mix. When she was ready she created a well in the middle of the hot sand and slid in the metal bowl with the cake mix in it. The lid went on the cooking pot and she took some of the burning logs from the fire and piled them on top. Ingenious, the hot sand ensured the heat from the fire was spread evenly around the cake and the fire on the lid completed the oven. I hung around the fire for the next hour until the cake was ready; it was the tastiest banana bread I have ever eaten.
Another trip out of the village was to the neighbouring town of Tombo to the Bellamy Academy. This school, named after its patron the premiership footballer Craig Bellamy, is home to 15 of the best football talents in Sierra Leone. The first class is a group of young lads aged between 12 and 14; they will spend the next 5 years at the academy studying towards GCSEs and training. The hope is that as well as producing a handful of professional footballers, the students will leave with a strong enough academic background and a level of football that will allow them to get scholarships to study at western universities. It is an incredible opportunity for these lads, and when you meet them you couldn’t hope for it to happen to a nicer group. They are polite, friendly and intelligent guys and I am sure those that make it in football will be great ambassadors for their country.
We were invited to teach a short class at the academy, and with my background in travel I chose geography. We talked about the continents, and then I asked the students to name as many countries as they could think of in each continent. I was really surprised at their knowledge as I was told that they had not studied much geography, they were doing really well. When we progressed to the capital cities I realised why.
“Does anyone know what the capital of Brazil is?” I asked.
“Santos!” They answered confidently. When we moved on to Argentina the capital was “Boca.” I looked at the list of countries we had on the board, I couldn’t see one that hadn’t played at a recent world cup. I had been surprised to see Qatar, hosts of the 2022 world cup, on this list. Now I knew why!
It seemed like a great place to work from though, and from there the lesson became great fun. I know nothing about football, so it became a two way lesson.
“What football teams play in Serbia?” I asked.
“Partasan Belgrade” A few answered.
“Great! The capital of Serbia is Belgrade, so that will you all be able to remember that?”
I don’t know how much use my lesson was for the boys in the scheme of things, but I learned a lot about football teams and had a great time.
I really love the freedom Tribe Wanted gives you to create your own experience. My Tribe Wanted was meeting so many local people and getting to become a part of their lives. Although there is plenty of building work going on tribe members can get involved in, that didn’t really appeal to me. Our friend Ray on the other hand wants to build his own earth home in Australia, so he spent eight weeks working with the building team. Our experiences of Tribe Wanted were completely different, yet we will both treasure memories of our time in John Obey and of the people we met there.
Before I came to Tribe Wanted I really didn’t know what to expect but by the end of the week I knew exactly what founder, Ben Keene, means by eco-tourism and sustainable travel. At Tribe Wanted they aren’t just ideas, they are the foundation on which the project is built. I also now know what a luxury shack is; it’s a shack with a simple but elegant four poster bed, made by the local carpenter from the village. It’s a shack with a million dollar view over the lagoon to the beach beyond. It’s a shack where every morning you wake up to the gentle sound of waves breaking on the shore. I also learned what the big downside of community tourism is. When the locals are your friends, not just the hotel barman, it is so much harder to say goodbye.
Get more information about a Sierra Leone holiday in the Sierra Leone guide