Chole Mjini: A Love Story (Part 1)

Once upon a time is how fairytales start, as does the one from Anne and Jean, who realized their life dream in Chole Mjini on Mafia Island. Jean tells the wonderful, emotional story of his long journey to Mafia Island.

The City Boy and the Farm Girl

Anne and I met in Katima Mulilo, a very small town on the Zambezi in the Caprivi strip of Namibia. She was an agronomist, working for the British Government, and she was hitchhiking through Africa on her way from a job in the Solomon Islands to her new post in Zanzibar. I had studied medicine and molecular biology and I was working in Biotechnology, and I was visiting my brother between a job in Zurich to a new job in Manhattan, New York (and further study in Washington).

Before we met, Anne was a farm girl (albeit with a Master’s Degree in Development and Agriculture) who lived on farms or small islands in Kenya, the Isle of Man, Togo, St Lucia, Belize and the Solomons. I was most definitely a city boy, who had always lived in cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Sydney, London, Zurich, Wien, Berlin, Boston, Houston, San Diego and New York city.

Beginnings in Africa

Anne wanted a lift anywhere vaguely North and I had a car, going South. Whilst driving around Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa over the next month, we discovered that we shared a love for remote places, wilderness, traveling, camping, wildlife, Africa, adventure, wildflowers and baobabs, despite all our arguments in the car when I had to remind her that she was a hitchhiker not the car owner and I was going where I wanted to.

I knew early on that she was special, probably from the night she woke me up to paddle across the Zambezi river to find where the music was coming from and then carried me on her back because I had not brought my shoes.

I have never met another person as brave and positive and as capable as Anne. She is the perfect person to go on an adventure with and we have had many adventures together since that day.

Diving is one of Jean’s deepest passions.

I took time off from my career to follow Anne to Zanzibar. We married in Zanzibar and for a while I was just SCUBA diving, playing tennis or football almost every day, biding my time until I had to go back to reality. I was however under a lot of pressure to look busy so I started a dive business, going by yacht to Pemba and Mafia, which in those days was really just an expensive hobby because there weren’t enough tourists to make it pay.

First Visit to Chole

We were on a camping, diving and fishing trip with a marine biologist friend when we first went to Chole Island. We had to fish for our food because there was no functioning hotel on Mafia in 1992, nor even a regular flight. We had to charter an airplane in Zanzibar and fill it with compressor, tanks, dive gear, petrol, outboard engine, food, drink, fishing gear, camping gear, first aid kit and whatever else we thought we might need.

Jean’s fascination with dhows on Mafia Island was so strong that he let this dhow be built for himself.

Mafia and especially Chole seemed so remote and unspoilt. Chole island was extremely poor but the people were so friendly, welcoming and dignified, with a wonderful sense of self, even though many of them were dressed in torn old clothes and their children had swollen bellies and sores from malnutrition. When I first saw the beautiful dhows that they build on the island I decided that I had to have one and, as a result, I returned three of four times in the next months to see how my dhow was coming on (actually our dhow because I persuaded Anne and Matt , our marine biologist friend, to come in as my partners).

At the time, Chole was an undiscovered gem.

Chole Mjini: the initial thoughts

Tanzania had just changed from being a socialist one-party state to a multi-party capitalist democracy, without changing ruling political party or even party leadership. The District Authorities thought that I must be one of these “investors” they had been ordered to find and encourage and so they insisted on showing me properties where I should build a hotel. In truth both Anne and I really hate what hotel developments do to beautiful, remote places. We had both seen remote paradises being destroyed by tourism, me on the Wild Coast of South Africa, Spain, the Virgin Islands and Mauritius and Anne in the Caribbean, Kenya, and Solomon Islands.

I did however express an interest in the “hotel site” on Chole Island, just to try and stop the District Commissioner from wasting his time showing me around. I never had any intention of building a hotel. I might even have assaulted anyone who dared to suggest I would one day build a hotel Chole island. I did tell an American friend, who wanted to build a hotel on a small island, about Chole. However, when he went to Mafia to ask for land he was turned away because the land on Chole was already allocated to someone else.

It took him some months to discover that the someone else was me.

Read in part two, how the love story continued. Chole Mjini is nominated for the “World Responsible Tourism People’s Choice Award” – vote for the lovable paradise on the East Coast of Africa here.

Written by Jean de Villiers, owner of Chole Mjini