‘The best way to get tourism to mean something is to embed it into the community’
For Sarah Bergs, founder and director of Mpumalanga nongovernmental organisation Nourish, the thinking behind Shik Shack Backpackers was twofold: bring affordable accommodation to an area that had little of this, and use tourism to help communities. “There are the lodges, but for young people or families travelling they’re very expensive, and there were few alternatives. But most importantly we built Shik Shack as we wanted to make tourism tangible to the village. The best way to get tourism to mean something is to embed tourism into the community.”
To this end, the backpackers is not just about an overnight place to stay. Bergs has developed the concept to offer an authentic local experience. Visitors can stay in the community, joining mealtimes, helping in the gardens and accompanying older members to church.
“When people come to stay here, money really goes to people in the village,” explains Bergs. “We encourage people to see, engage, and experience life in modern-day rural Africa. That is what Shik Shack is all about: dusty pathways, happy children smiling, trying local cuisine, and developing mutual respect for this beautiful area and its people and culture.”
This experiential hospitality has a further effect — the majority of supply is sourced from the local community. “Even our peanut butter is made by one of the community grandmothers,” she says. It’s easy to see the multiple value.
The physical build of the backpackers is an ongoing development. Shik Shack has gone through phase one build, with the common area created solely through the use of eco-bricks (plastic waste-filled bottles) and cob walls, lime waterproofing and cowdung-and-clay floors. Power is solar, rainwater is harvested and all waste reused, including composting toilets.
The eco-bricks were created through edu-programmes in the local schools, and Bergs says 10 households benefited and continue to benefit from the project. “Our building approach that involved schools, hosting workshops and utilising and training local builders will ensure these green and sustainable building skills are used again and again in the village, as people see that green building is cost effective, light on the earth, and also beautiful,” she says.
The underlying ethos of Shik Shack feeds into Nourish, the nongovernmental organisation Bergs founded six years ago. “Nourish is focused on growing resilient communities through a multifaceted and holistic approach to long term and sustainable community upliftment. We believe that alongside education and food security, one of the biggest challenges facing poverty-struck areas in South Africa is lack of jobs and income generation. This is why part of Nourish is to focus on bringing in income through training, skills building, and business incubating at a community/grassroots level.”
Says Bergs: “Only when people are educated, can farm and provide for themselves, and have financial income, can they make good decisions about their future. This is where Shik Shack plays a role, tying together tourism with income generation.”