Chole Mjini: A Love Story (Part 2)

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. (Read Part 1 first here.)

A Dhow and a Family

Our new dhow was completed and, when Anne was 8 months pregnant with our first child Didier, she finally made some time off work to quickly go to Chole for the launch of the dhow. I packed a “birthing kit” just in case. On the maiden voyage, Anne grabbed the tiller, from all the boat builders (and me), and so (she) was the first to sail “Mama Chole”, huge belly and all.

Didier was born three weeks later on the Isle of Man, on the family farm, with his grandmother and great grandmother at the bedside (and his father, who had discovered the pleasant effects of the Nitrous Oxide, that the midwifes had brought but Anne had refused to use, in the bed).

We kept the dhow at Chole and came often over the next year to explore Chole Bay and the rest of Mafia, the Rufiji river delta directly to the West, the string of islands to the South down to Kilwa and the islands to the North, between Mafia and Zanzibar.

Jean and Anne spent a lot of time speaking to elders of Chole and learning from them.

We got to know and trust the village council chairman and some of the boat builders and village elders in those days and, in discussions with them, Anne became very interested in how to address the biggest problems that the village elders and women told us about….the lack of health care, especially for women and children and lack of educational opportunities and the dependence of so many people on natural resource exploitation.

In those days only one person from Chole had a job, only one had finished primary school (that is only 6 years of schooling), there was one bicycle on the island, the cash economy of the island was less than $10,000 per year, very few people could afford the trip by boat and car to the District hospital and a woman could not leave the island without permission from her husband, father or brother.

The village council chairman, a wonderful man who, in this very traditional, polygamous culture, remained monogamous and also faithful to just one woman, his only wife, his entire long life, even talked of his frustration with the social hierarchy of the community, where young people from the poorest families had no prospects and most women where still chattel, effectively owned by their men.

On our return to Zanzibar from the Isle of Man, I settled into the life of a house-husband, looking after our baby and working on my back-hand (top spin down the line, in my dreams just like Federer), running my SCUBA business, which was slowly growing and also founding the Zanzibar Ecotourism Society with two awesome women, Len Horlin and Fiona Clark.

Wine and the Beginnings of Chole Mjini

The idea for Chole Mjini happened after several dinners with wine – today, guests can also enjoy a wonderful dinner in good company at Chole Mjini.

Our American friend, Emerson, started coming around for dinner two or three times a week, always to talk to us about investing in the Chole Island hotel project (which couldn’t get off the ground unless I was involved). Over many bottles of wine we reinvented responsible tourism through a series of good-natured arguments that started usually with me saying how a hotel development would destroy Chole and/or harm the marine environment and Emerson then twisting what I had said into a reason why we should become the developers.

Anne became intrigued by the idea of a for-profit company as a long-term, sustainable partner in rural development. Before I realized what we were getting ourselves into, Anne and I had both become interested in testing this “new” development paradigm and so the Chole Mjini Conservation and Development Company Ltd was born and we started to seriously plan how to build the kind of hotel that we would want to find in such a beautiful place that, at the same time, would empower the local people and bring real, tangible, quantifiable benefits to the local community.

From the beginning, improving and supporting the Chole community was very close to Jean’s and Anne’s hearts.

Anne and Emerson spent countless hours talking with village elders, leaders and women about their needs and priorities while I went about designing and implementing ways to achieve our joint goals, which led to the formation of the Chole Social Development Society and the Chole Economic Development Society (and our first donation from the U.S. Ambassador, who came on a dive trip with me). The Chole Society for Women’s Development and the Chole Mjini Charitable Trust would come later, driven by our donors.

A Future-Oriented Decision

When Anne was pregnant with our second child, Maya, the British government pulled out of Zanzibar, in protest against rigged elections, and we had to make a spot decision about our future; either go to Fiji, where they wanted to post Anne or to Boston, where I had a job offer or, just maybe should we go to Chole for a while. Emerson was going bankrupt, having made a film and started the Zanzibar Film Festival and he pulled out of our project.

Anne and I both dislike failure and absolutely hated the thought of disappointing our friends on Chole and squashing all the new optimism we had all generated.

We had already started building a primary school and a clinic but the money for the hotel had “disappeared”.

Chole Island had lots of potential for Jean and Anne.

One Year…

So we decided to move to Chole “for a year” to try to rescue the situation but first Anne had to go back home to the Isle of Man to have our baby (and look into graduate school offers to keep her busy while we lived on Chole. Little did she know how busy she was going to be) and I went to Chole to learn how to build, by building our house and store rooms, because Anne, most unreasonably, refused to live in a tent with a four year old and a new-born baby. I rushed to the Isle of Man at the last minute for the birth and as soon as we could get a passport for our new little angel we moved to Chole.

Maya’s Godfather (my good friend Gray) gave us one of the earliest satellite phones and in private gave me a piece of his mind for being so irresponsible.

He was only one of many friends and family who thought we had lost our minds to move to an island without electricity, water, communications, health care, shops and the support of our loved ones.

Chole Mjini is set up with several tree houses that offer a great havens.

Now, eighteen years later, that one year has still not yet ended and one or two of the doubters have changed their minds because our kids are healthy, successful, gorgeous and all round awesome. Actually only one has said so but I suspect there are others.

Together with the boat builders and a carpenter and a stone-mason that we trained, I (we) built the tree houses that make up our lodge while Anne did the gardens, decor and the community liaison and soon earned the same name that we had given to our first dhow, “Mama Chole”. It just seemed natural to stay on for a while and make sure that what we had started would run smoothly.

Family de Villiers have lived on Chole Island for almost two decades.

…Turned into 18 Years

We had the extreme privilege of being with our children 24/7/365 for the first 10 years of their lives, which just flew by, living in a community of caring people who shaped our children as much as we did.

It has also been our great honour to be able to live in such a beautiful and natural place and give back to our adopted community.

We have been able to use the good fortune of our privileged births and the networking to the rest of the world that is possible with the help and donations of friends and guests. Together we have helped to uplift the people of Chole and enabled them to shape their own futures through assistance with health care, education and economic diversification and even do something about conservation of coral reefs, mangroves and whale sharks.

Children in Chole now have a school and receive education – there are already first alumni from university!

The most truly wonderful reward, for our 23 years of involvement with Chole, is to see the first wave of thirteen young people , including three girls and boys from the poorest families on Chole, graduate from University (8 with degrees and 5 with diplomas) and begin to find professional employment and their places in the wider world. We have committed ourselves to helping two generations of Chole children to get educated and our job is now halfway complete. Finally, the cherry on the cake has been to go SCUBA diving, sailing, swimming or paddling almost every day and then have a fabulous dinner party with incredibly interesting guests most evenings.

It’s been a tough couple of decades but someone had to do it and I’m glad it was us.

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.