Shewula Mountain Camp: The balm for community difficult times
For the award-winning community tourist destination, Shewula Mountain Camp, Covid-19 has proven to be much more than a health problem but the mother of all hardships. VUYISILE HLATSHWAYO reports.
Out and about on top of the north-eastern Lubombo Mountain Range, I have found Shewula Mountain Camp bleakly and depressingly empty during the global coronavirus pandemic.
Overnight, the balm for the community difficult times has turned into a no-go-area to all people including domestic and foreign tourists. Keeping people at bay as one of the preventative measures, the Covid-19 travel restrictions have left the entire community reeling from the deepening socio-economic woes.
According to Marketing Officer, Thandi Sifundza, the partial lockdown, which began on March 27, has spelt doom for this small hospitality business owned by the Shewula community. It also coincided with the travel restrictions imposed by most overseas countries, whose travellers were patronizing the rural-based tourist site. Chief among the overseas countries is Italy, Holland, Germany, Belgium and France.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a death blow to our business. It has hit hardest Italy, one of the overseas countries, which is home to many of our foreign tourists,” she says. “Our optimism for survival faded away when our government followed suit to introduce the strict lockdown regulations.”
Sifundza fears that the lockdown might continue beyond the hospitality industry peak months of June, August and December. The SA Covid-19 restrictions also give her sleepless nights worrying over her business future. After landing at O.R Tambo International Airport, the overseas tourists come via Kruger National Park for the Eswatini royal experience.
With only eight rondavel huts available for accommodation on-site, Shewula Mountain Camp, which accommodates 24 to 25 tourists, generates enough funds from its traditional offerings. The marketing officer reveals that it generates E760, 000 annually. She adds that some overseas volunteers among the tourists donate a sum of E60, 000 annually.
Not only a catalyst for community development, it is also a vital source for the livelihood and income of the previously impoverished community. Sifundza points out that its proceeds are ploughed back to other community projects. She adds that it also contributes to the economic development by buying farm produce from the local farmers.
“Covid-19 has seen our community tourism business grinding to a halt which affected our community projects in the pipeline. After building a house for a needy gogo, we wanted to build a toilet and backyard garden. Handcraft vendors at the handcraft centre have lost business from the overseas tourists who buy souvenirs. It’s inevitable that we all stand to lose due to the coronavirus,” she says.
A Shewula resident, Esther Mahlalela (60), who shares Sifundza’s panic and anxiety, has dubbed the coronavirus ‘Colombia’. She is deeply concerned about its ripple effects on the tourism project which is a vital source of livelihood for many. She observes that the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have affected badly the engine of the community’s economy.
“Since the Covid-19 stay home campaign began, all the tourists have stopped visiting our tourist site. Thrown out of business, it has just stopped buying our farm produce. Mine includes cassava, beans, maize, sweet potatoes, cow peas and mungo beans. I now fear that my poor family will perish of hunger due to my loss of income,” she says.
Mahlalela faces hard times ahead together with her five children, two of whom are orphaned grandchildren. Taking care of all of them, she does not know where to turn to get food to feed her family. She has braced herself for a poor harvest following the delayed rains, heatwave and armyworms in the planting season. Covid-19 has dealt her a heavy blow because she was banking on Shewula Mountain Camp to buy her drought-resistant cassava and mungo beans.
Worse still she faces an acute water shortage, yet water is key in the fight against the coronavirus disease. With a dried-up communal water tap in the area, she wakes up at 4am to queue for water in a faraway tap. Sometimes, she returns home with an empty container because it gets finished whilst she is in the line. She is then forced to draw water from a nearby stream.
She acknowledges that this makes adherence to the laid down Covid-19 hygiene measures extremely difficult for her family. One of the precautionary measures is that people must frequently wash hands with running water and soap.
Moses Sifundza, who is a farmer, echoes Mahlalela’s words about the Covid-19 domino effect on the Shewula Mountain Camp. He mentions the great loss of a reliable market for their farm produce. He supplies it with groundnuts, cow peas and indigenous chickens.
He bemoans that the coronavirus outbreak has increased the social burden of high unemployment rate in the community. To remain afloat, Shewula Mountain Camp must retrench. He points out that this disadvantages the people on antiretroviral treatment who cannot be employed in the labour-intensive jobs by the neighbouring sugar estates.
Shewula Mountain Camp’s Sifundza explains that the Covid-19 lockdown has further frustrated efforts to revive a nursery of indigenous plants and fruit trees. When the lockdown began, she was turned back in Manzini. She was going to Eswatini Environment Authority (EEA) to seek funds and a licence for the nursery. She explains that the community is in the process of reviving the nursery stopped during the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak.
“Shewula Mountain Camp is close to the Mozambique border and we used to receive tourists from Mozambique. Some just came through for lunch while others spent a night. But all that has abruptly come to end due to the coronavirus outbreak,” she concludes.
Shewula Mountain Camp is a painful reminder of the worst Covid-19 effects on the community tourism and hospitality industry.