Sunday, July 13, 2008


Bulembu is in the Highveld region in northwest Swaziland, where – up until 2001 – a thriving asbestos mine had been the anchor for employment, education, medical care, and recreation for a town and community of about 10,000. Following the mine’s closure almost eight years ago, the town literally shut down overnight, as all the mining and related support jobs were lost. Commerce essentially stopped, and villagers (Bulembuers?) emptied out in search of employment, dropping the population down to about 100.

A few years back a successful Swazi bought the entire town, and incorporated it as a Section 21 (nonprofit) company with the mission of revitalizing Bulembu and providing employment, education, and health services to the region. Bulembu’s now a centrally-planned community, and an interesting social and economic experiment.

Nick, a TNS volunteer with a knack for making connections, had met Bulembu Lodge’s Manager, Vernon, through a TechnoServe program, and a bunch of us took an overnight trip last weekend to check out the town and also bag Swaziland’s highest peak (Mt. Emlembe, elevation 6109 ft), which sits just outside of the village.

We arrived at the lodge just in time for dinner, where we were hosted by Sipho, the Asst. Lodge Manager / Receptionist / Waiter / Shopkeeper / Bulembu Calendar Model. After breakfast the next morning our guide, Niti, took us on a walk through town before we hiked up to the peak.

Still in the transformation stage, Bulembu was a weird mix of abandoned mining town leftovers (an unused 22km. cable car to take the asbestos through the mountains to SA, an old cinema with 1960’s style projectors that haven’t been in use, and an overgrown golf course) reminiscent of DHARMA Initiative infrastructure that you’d expect to see in LOST, and remade buildings that housed the various projects and businesses that the town has started up (a wood-working shop, a honey collection plant, and various orphanages and schools). The town clearly has a way to go, but it’s seemed to make progress towards its mission of reviving the town and providing industry, education, and health care.

There’s a general feeling among Swazis that the government can’t be trusted or relied upon for much, and that feeling is very strong in Bulembu. (Talking with Vernon, the town has been waiting in vain for years for the main road in to be paved – which would clear the way for the large tour buses and other visitors and income – but the government ministry responsible for the project has kept on putting it off.) Rather than face the decline of the town, a small group of Swazis and expats rallied among its vitality and beauty and formed a community to face the uphill struggle of bringing it back to life. It’s an example of foreign and homegrown Swazi entrepreneurship coming together.

After touring the town our group successfully summitted, marking what I’m pretty sure was my first time at the highest elevation of any nation.

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