James & Lawrence and the story of Makasutu
Two English men James English and Lawrence Williams found Makasutu on Christmas Eve 1992. This was the culmination of 3 years of searching The Gambia (and many more searching the world) by James for a piece of land suitable to create a tourism project. Four acres were originally purchased from the local owners of the land, the Sanneh Kunda (family).
The initial idea was to build a small back packers lodge, but upon returning to Makasutu after a three-month journey driving from England to The Gambia, two hundred palm trees had been cut down from the surrounding area. The Sanneh family were contacted, as were the forestry department, and it was decided that the way to protect the area was to buy the land and fence it.
This changed the whole idea for the back packers lodge, and after many nights sitting round the campfire it was decided to try to help in the re-foresting of the area, and eventually to open the site as a cultural reserve, highlighting how the local people live, and also to encourage the return of wildlife to the area.
Fifteen thousand trees were planted over the next few years, as well as 70 wells to help water the new trees. The local people that were living and using Makasutu before James and Lawrence arrived, were left as they were on the land, and discussions were held with them, and it was decided it was possible to incorporate them into the tourism project that was planned.
Base Camp was the first area that was developed, followed by the Baobab Cultural Centre. The area was developed in a sensitive way, making sure that no trees were cut down in the development, and actually designing the buildings to fit into the spaces that the trees dictated. The site took seven years to develop, and finally the day park was officially opened on the 20th July 1999 by the then Minister of Lands and Local Government, Mr Bajo, on behalf of his Excellency President Jammeh.
Word of makasutu spread quickly, and the site soon became the ‘must do’ excursion in The Gambia. Many of the visitors expressed a desire to stay in Makasutu, due to the tranquillity of the area. The decision was taken to develop the site that became known as ‘Mandina’ as a five star eco lodge like no other in West Africa. Construction began in 2000, with as many as 150 people working on the swimming pool alone. Due to the standard of the carpentry the lodges are very time consuming to produce, with the construction an ongoing concern through the rainy season each year, until the desired number are complete.
James an engineer and Lawrence an architect spent the first seven years living in tents on the land, with no running water or electricity, really getting to understand the land and environment, which is why many visitors comment on the attention to detail that has gone into the design and construction. Makasutu has won many environmental tourism awards since opening.
The staff at Makasutu all come from the surrounding villages, a deliberate measure to try to help stop the urban drift to the city, and allowing the surrounding area to directly benefit from this tourism enterprise.
2011 brought the sad news of James English’s premature passing and for a time it was perhaps uncertain what would happen at Mandina and Makasutu. But the pioneer spirit lives on and Lawrence has continued to manage proceedings in his inimitable style, and as such the future looks very bright. There is the ongoing relationship with the Eden Project and the Gardens for Life initiative, there is the Ballabu conservation scheme, and the brilliant, joyous art of the Wide Open Walls project which lights up the villages in the wider Ballabu area.
Here’s to the next 20 years!
On Saturday 28th April 2012 and July 22nd 2012 Square in Banjul, Makasutu was awarded the National Order of The Gambia, an award for meritorious and outstanding services of a person, institution or group to The Gambia. Lawrence recieved the award in person from President Jammeh himself. It's a great honor for everyone at Makasutu and just rewards for so many years of hard work.