Tribewanted Makes a Visible Difference in Sierra Leone

Ben Keene and Filippo Bozotti smile for the camera with Tribewanted members. Images by Tribewanted except where noted.

Ben Keene and Filippo Bozotti smile for the camera with Tribewanted members.

By Helena Wahlstrom

Many of us dream of changing the world, but shy away because the task seems too monumental. Tribewanted, a non-profit eco-tourism organization dedicated to bringing sustainable change to local communities, allows participants to effect real change on a smaller scale.

Focusing this year on Sierra Leone, Tribewanted participants, or tribe members, can make a visible difference in the life of a small fishing village.

Regenerating Salone

Tribewanted was founded in 2006 by Ben Keene as a crowdfunded effort, and the first tribe was based in Voro-Voro, Fiji. The project attracted 10,000 tribe members online, and about a thousand of them visited on-location, living as part of a group set to make a positive impact on the environment and local communities.

After a successful season in Fiji, Tribewanted relocated to John Obey, Sierra Leone in 2010. The organization’s second season in Sierra Leone is set to begin in October and will be concluding in June 2012.

“For our second tribe we could have opted for an ‘easier destination.’ But after meeting with Filippo and seeing Salone’s [local name for Sierra Leone] potential I knew we had an opportunity to try and play a small part in the regeneration of this amazing country. Will it be easy? No. Will it be worth it? 100%,” Keene said on his blog.

A Village Rises

Tribewanted members construct eco-friendly Superadobe domes.
Tribewanted members construct eco-friendly Superadobe domes.

In Sierra Leone, tribes consisting of up to 30 members spend a minimum of one week living in a sustainable community built from scratch near a small fishing village, John Obey, located 20 miles south of the capital, Freetown.

The village, situated one mile from the Tribewanted community, has a population of 372. During their stay, tribe members can participate in community projects such as building schools, compost toilets, and dwellings, including ones for Tribewanted participants themselves.

“At first it was ‘bring-your-own-tent,’” Tribewanted founding partner Filippo Bozotti said. During the first season, tribe members built Cal-Earth eco-domes, constructed using local materials, bungalows, and VIP shacks on the lagoon. The beehive-shaped Superadobe eco-domes are tree free and consist of earth stabilized with cement or lime. In addition to being eco-friendly, they are “incredibly beautiful,” Bozotti said.

Pricing depends on lodging type: $450 per week and person for camping, $550 for beach bungalows and earth domes, and $750 for earth dome en-suite. The prices include a seven night stay at John Obey Beach, all meals, airport customs support, community experience with the tribe, and support for the development project.

Tribemembers participate in building the community.

Tribemembers participate in building the community.

Building a Community

In partnership with the fishing village, Tribewanted employs 25 locals who did not have jobs before to work alongside visitors on a variety of projects. “The goal is to hand over the project to the locals,” Bozotti said. The local community has taken over the project and is now building houses and fixing walls.

All profits from the project are re-invested into the local community, education, and microfinance.Tribewanted also provides a $6,000 goodwill to the John Obey community each year. The project is currently 80% financially sustainable.
In addition to volunteering, tribemembers can relax in a hammock by the beach. Photo by Susan Braun.

In addition to volunteering, tribemembers can relax in a hammock by the beach.

Tribe members “live, work, eat, and play with the locals,” Bozotti said. Visitors can participate as much or as little in the community projects as they want, but most choose to participate. Positioning itself somewhere in between traditional structured volunteering and beach tourism, Tribewanted expects participants to choose their degree of participation in day-to-day community living, projects and activities, and to integrate with the local way of life.

When the workday is over, tribe members can relax in a hammock, read books donated by previous tribe members, enjoy the waters of the local lagoon and the sea, canoe up-river, and drum with the tribe at a campfire when night falls while enjoying poyo, local palm wine.

Those looking for more excitement can fish with the local community, surf at the Bureh Town beach, play sports with kids from the local primary school or football academy, or play volleyball.

And at the dining table, tribe members enjoy local offerings, from fish to the bounty of permaculture gardens, feasting on local delicacies like rice with cassava leaf, ground nut soup, and ginger beer.

For those who can’t make it to John Obey but would like to support the project from a distance, Tribewanted accepts donations that go directly to Sierra Leone. Benefactors become online tribe members.
Filippo Bozotti, co-founder of Tribewanted.

Filippo Bozotti, co-founder of Tribewanted.

Beautiful Sierra Leone

Bozotti first got involved with Sierra Leone in 2006 when he created a VH1 documentary called Bling, which explored the connections between blood diamonds and hip-hop. During the project, he became enamored with the formerly war-torn country, still burdened by its reputation as dangerous.

Bozotti wants to change the media narrative about Sierra Leone through Tribewanted. The brutal civil war ended ten years ago, but tourists have not discovered the country. Poverty and faulty infrastructure persist, but Bozotti counters the common presumption that Sierra Leone is dangerous for tourists. Additionally, Tribewanted employs a full-time security team consisting of both locals and visitors.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to,” Bozotti said. In addition to the beauty and the country’s friendly people, Bozotti appreciates the potential to make a visible difference in the local communities. “It’s a small place, so little goes a long way and you can really see the impact of your work.”
Tribewanted works with locals to build the community.

Tribewanted works with locals to build the community.

Believing in the Impossible

Mark Ax’s Tribewanted experience began with an email. “Do you know anyone who would be interested in designing a solar array to power an Eco village in Sierra Leone Africa?” Bozotti wrote to Ax, who jumped at the chance.

“When I read those lines, I instantly thought, ‘yeah, me. That’s exactly what I want to do!’”

Ax, CFO of Sea Bright Solar in New Jersey, also corresponded with Keene and Hooman Fazly, Tribewanted’s Cal Earth partner, and joined the tribe before ever setting foot in Sierra Leone.

Ax arrived in John Obey at four a.m. after driving through the kerosene lamp lit night of Freetown. He immediately set out to raise his tent. “I had practiced at home, as I wanted to be ready.”
Scenic John Obey Beach.

Scenic John Obey Beach.

He spent nearly a month and a half on John Obey Beach. “When I arrived, there was just a shell of a kitchen and no toilets yet.” During his stay, he helped raise an 18 foot high solar tower built from local materials.

“It is without question the most challenging thing I have ever attempted. I came expecting to improvise but I had no idea how much Africa would influence me,” Ax said. “Nothing is easy, but working is so satisfying. The energy of the people and the place makes me believe in the impossible because really that’s what is required.”

His time with Tribewanted made a lasting impression. “The experience was one of the most amazing of my entire life,” he said.

Back to Nature and Simple Life

Tom Volpe from the UK read about Tribewanted in the travel news. “It sounded just like the sort of thing that interests me.” Coincidentally, Volpe’s wife met Angela who runs a charity in Sierra Leone that same week while attending a nurse conference. They decided to spend a week with each.

“For me the real highlight of the Tribewanted experience was getting to be part of a real community,” Volpe said. “Tribewanted have built a sustainable tourism project, but it is also very much part of the John Obey village. I loved meeting people from the village, getting to know them and learning about their lives.”
Omo, who works in the Tribewanted kitchens, makes banana bread by the fire. Photo by Tom Volpe.

Omo, who works in the Tribewanted kitchens, makes banana bread by the fire. Photo by Tom Volpe.

For Volpe, one particularly memorable experience happened when a volunteer was departing after spending a couple of months with Tribewanted. “When he left, lots of people from the village came out with drums and danced and sang to him as he was leaving.” Volpe loved the spontaneity of it. “In some parts of the world resorts will organise things like this for guests, but what I loved about seeing it in John Obey is that it was totally spontaneous.”

Volpe enjoyed the basic lifestyle in the community. “The living conditions at Tribe Wanted are basic by western standards, but everything is very thoughtfully designed. Getting back to nature and a simple life is part of the appeal.”

He and his wife plan on going back next year along with some friends.

“This is one of the best travel experiences I have ever had and I love telling people about it so they can experience it for themselves!”

Read more about Volpe’s time with Tribewanted at Heading There.
Local children greet the visitors. Copyright: Tanja Zoeller

Local children greet the visitors. Copyright: Tanja Zoeller

Unique and Rewarding

Nick Downie from Manchester, England spent three weeks in John Obey Beach in February with his girlfriend, Tanja Zoeller. “The country sounded like everything we’d been looking for – great beaches, friendly people, jungles, nature, wildlife and somewhere that not everyone thinks of going – and we quickly agreed that we both really wanted to go.”

After a rough and bumpy ride from the airport to John Obey, Downie and Tanja were met with a location that he describes as “incredible,” with a completely deserted beach, lagoon and hilly woods. “It was also nice to be close to the village but still maintain a feeling of being completely surrounded by nature, and being safe there too,” Downie said.
Tribemembers enjoy the beauty of John Obey Beach.

Tribemembers enjoy the beauty of John Obey Beach.

Downie enjoyed the freedom that Tribewanted allows its members in choosing what projects they engage in. He mainly participated in building projects and gardening, while his girlfriend focused on permaculture and gardening projects.

A highlight of the trip for Downie was visits to local schools, where his group distributed books and pencils. At the Craig Bellamy Football Academy, they were able to meet the boys and teach a lesson. “It was a unique and rewarding experience,” Downie said.

“It was sad to leave, having felt like we’d made real friends and contributed to something very worthwhile. We’d both have no hesitation in returning or recommending others to visit.”
Tribewanted co-founder Ben Keene in Sierra Leone.

Tribewanted co-founder Ben Keene in Sierra Leone.

Sustainable Experiences

Sustainable living is key to Tribewanted. Compost toilets built and used in the community minimize water usage, as do bucket showers. “It’s the most beautiful shower, overlooking the ocean and miles of beach, with the lagoon on the other side,” Bozotti said.

Within the community, tribe members’ water and electricity usage is an astonishing 5% of the average American.

“We want to show people that it’s possible to live this way, and hopefully they will take the lesson with them when they go back, and change their way of life. The experience doesn’t end in Sierra Leone.”

More information about Tribewanted Sierra Leone

Tribe Wanted: My Adventure on Paradise or Bust by Ben Keene
Keene’s blog
Filippo Bozotti writes about his experiences at Huffington Post


Helena Wahlstrom
is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and an exchange student at UMass from, Helsinki, Finland. She writes our daily Travel News Notes blog, about breaking travel news.

For more information, visit Tribewanted Sierra Leone

Read more articles about volunteering around the world on GoNOMAD


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Helena Wahlstrom

Helena Wahlstrom

Helena Walstrom was born in Helsinki, Finland where she grew up. She was an intern for GoNOMAD, and was one of the best. She now lives in New Hampshire and works as an editor.