Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Start From Scratch

A hotelier in Porto Novo pointed me to Chez Theo in Possotomé, on Lake Ahémè. I had liked the guy and his hotel enough that I was willing to take his recommendation, despite it being one of the lower options on the Lonely Planet list.
Possotomé is a tiny town on a lake that is reached only by a dirt road which is currently under construction. My book doesn’t even give a map, just mentions the town and a few hotels. When I asked the reception for a map of Possotomé, he took me around the corner and down a well-kept path under arches of bamboo towards the lake. A nice little surprise; I didn’t even know whether I was near the lake. Out on the water was a decent-sized cabana built of bamboo and straw. The bartender there handed me a bottle of Possotomé water. Apparently my French isn’t that good. I explained I was looking for a map and he then took me to a younger man with curly hair and a short goatee who was sitting at a table talking with a couple older Yovos, probably French tourists.
He turned in his chair and we did the name game in French. Then, in English, he asked “what do you need?” I explained my situation and he directed me to sit with him. The older French folks left the table and he and I got to talking.
His name was Romain, known as Rom. He was French and employed at the hotel. I figured he was one of those slightly jaded guys who take a job at a third world hotel to hit on the tourist girls that come by. The type of thing rampant in Greece and Spain. I began to wonder what type of hotel I had arrived at.
“What type of work do you do for the hotel?”
“Mm, how you say, I manage the project?”
“Really? That's part of my work, also!”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Well, I work for an online travel agency. Maybe you know Expedia.fr?”
“Yes! Of course! We should talk – I want to get this hotel more customers, and maybe we can do something!”
So we got into a conversation on the economics of internet travel. Rom was far from a jaded slacker looking for a way to while away a couple years after college. He had first been connected with the hotel as a final project for his MBA program. He had 4 months to help develop the fledgling hotel into something more. Rom talked of his work and how he transformed the place from another generic concrete African hotel to one that feels more unique and natural. The project was such a success that he decided to commit to it indefinitely, and here he was.
It was immediately apparent to me that Rom gets it. He spoke of developing the hotel with a keen business sense, but also with a sense for sustainability.
“Africa is free. I can do what I want. For this hotel, I use local labor, I use local materials, I use minimal cement.” I looked around and noticed that the pathway was lined with locally made clay pots which he used as decoration and path markers. Local baskets and weaves were used as trim and decoration. The cabana was built on sticks pounded into the mud of the lake as the nearby stilt villages did.
We walked down the path and Rom pointed out the onsite garden where he hopes to produce enough vegetables to make that the primary source for the hotel. The hares which are commonly eaten here are raised on site. And the fresh fish is purchased right out of the lake from the local boys in boats who ply it daily with their canoes and nets.
“Come, let’s go into the bush.”
We hopped in an ancient white Renault which was rust red on the inside from years of the dusty road. As we drove, Rom explained that Theo, the hotel’s owner had worked his way up from the humblest beginnings. “One bag of cement at a time”.
“First stop,” Rom said. We climbed out of the car and walked into a tiny village on the side of the road. There, Rom pointed out the well that the villagers were digging, the cages where they grow the giant rats they eat called Agoutie, a room where they raised snails to eat, and the vegetable crops they were working on. Rom explained that these villagers worked on some of his projects, so he helped them get their projects going. We picked up a villager and got back in the car.

Digging the well with a metal bowl

“Second stop,” Rom said as we climbed out onto the red dirt road again, and this time walked off into a forest of small manioc (tapioca) trees and of young teak trees.
“30 centimeters tall in October. Now, three meters!” Rom pointed out how some of them had been pruned by machete, against his directions. “I bought them a clipper and pay them 5 CFA per tree to do this the right way.”
“How do you know the right way? Do you know about agriculture?”
“My first degree before business was agriculture.” Wow.

Children hunting crabs among the mangroves

We continued toward the lake and entered a mangrove forest, where millions of little feelers were prying their way up toward the hundreds of branches attempting to link with the ground below. Within the forest, four children were carefully poking around for small crabs which they took home in old coffee tins for dinner.
“What do you think, bungalows among the mangroves?” Rom asked, gesturing out a paradise of a hotel in this untouched area.
The land all belonged to Theo. Theo knew he should do something with it, but needed a visionary with useful skills to get things going.

A captured crab

The third stop was down a painfully dusty side road that approached the lake from above. There was a plot of land that had been dug out in preparation for a home. A large baobab tree sat adjacent to it and the view went from the red dirt to the green mangrove forest to the blue lake. “This will be my home. All local wood, local labor. The land is so cheap, maybe 20,000 Euros all the way to the lake.” I looked at him with a sense of wonder.
“Africa is free. To-tally free.”
The paved road to Possotomé is slated to be complete in a year or so. At the moment the lake is dotted with a few villages and a couple rarely-visited hotels. Fishermen fish, kids hunt, locals labor. The villagers don’t need clothes, and water is pulled from wells or the hot springs down the road. By chance I arrived the day before the annual gathering of all the lake villages for a huge voodoo dance off. At night, looking across the lake, one can see a few fires and a handful of electric lights indicating the villages. There are no motorized boats on the lake and Rom would never want to introduce them.

Children fishing on Lake Ahémè

Africa, or Benin at least, is free, and this little slice of it is within Rom’s control. The lake has potential for immense tourism, with countless activities and sights in the area. This could turn into something big. At the moment, Possotomé is untouched and unspoiled by tourism. Starting from this potential, Possotomé and Lake Ahémè have the opportunity to introduce tourism in any way they like. Under Rom’s vision Possotomé will not become an ugly place ruined by tourism, but will move toward a balance of respect for the past while benefiting the locals and a responsible number of guests for the future.

Voodoo dancer in Possotomé

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