One is immediately struck by Tinyiko Hlungwani’s genuine warmth and quiet calm. This is a woman whose hope, strength and compassion will carry her – and others – through even the toughest times.
Tinyiko is from Elim, just south of Makhado in Limpopo. Meaning ‘place of God’, this collection of farmsteads and villages is often confused with its namesake in the Western Cape – another mission station steeped in history, culture and community.
Although Tinyiko feels as though she has “grown up in tourism”, her journey into the tourism industry actually started on the forecourt of a petrol station in Limpopo. This is where Tinyiko started working after matriculating in the early nineties.
It is also where she met the Girardin family, owners of the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, a beautiful establishment on the Levubu (or Levuvhu) River in the foothills of the Luonde Mountains.
The Girardin’s offered Tinyiko a job at the lodge, and so her path in tourism was set; “growing up” as she says, as she worked her way up from a position in housekeeping to hospitality management over nearly 18 years at Shiluvari Lodge.
Today, Tinyiko is the manager of Nahakwe Lodge, a 4-star venue located 90 km north of Polokwane. Significantly, Nahakwe is owned by the local community of the Mamaila Kolobetona Traditional Authority. It was opened on 26 September 2015 as a showcase of a modern community-owned tourism enterprise and is an almost perfect example of the power of tourism (in terms of job creation, entrepreneurship, sustainable opportunities and the potential to upskill South Africa’s youth) – and the impact of COVID-19.
For Tinyiko, the magic of Nahakwe lies in the spirit, creativity and hospitality of the surrounding community. It is one of those wonderful places where you can experience life in a traditional Venda community, buy local handcrafts and enjoy local food and entertainment.
Nahakwe offers trips to the Modjadji Rain Queen and the Modjadji Cycad Reserve – boasting some of the oldest and largest Cycad specimens on earth.
It is a successful, bustling lodge which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 imposed lockdown. Less than 5 years old and, according to Tinyiko, “Now everything is back to zero. We have to start again.”
It is hard not to feel despondent, especially when Tinyiko describes the lodge today: “Unfortunately, you can’t see my tables [on the screen], but it’s a big space with a lot of tables where people are supposed to be sitting. The bar is closed. So, you can just imagine …”
But the lodge is ready to reopen. According to Tinyiko, each and every staff member, from security to maintenance, is well-trained and up to speed: “There is not one member of staff who does not know what to do. All our staff are screened, and we are ready to operate. You are in safe hands – from the moment you enter our gates.”
And listening to Tinyiko, you believe her. This community has far too much to lose and they are ready and raring to go:
“What would I say to our leaders? Open up everything that has been locked down. Tourism is a big sector in this country, and we have lost many, many jobs. Some people may have died because of this. They are not earning salaries; they are not eating food because of this. They need to open up – and come with new ideas. They need to make it easier for people to work.”
Keeping the faith
Tinyiko has a fire in her belly, and she encourages everyone, particularly women in the industry, to stay strong:
“They mustn’t lose hope. We believe that this virus will pass. They need to be strong and try and come up with new ideas, even creating small businesses for themselves. Most importantly, help each other with plans – perhaps small groups of women coming together.”
Tinyiko believes the tourism industry, despite everything, is still a sector of opportunity. “Tourism is very broad, and you can find work in many different ways, from sewing traditional clothes to sell to tourists, to providing food or cultural entertainment. Young people mustn’t give up.”
Tinyiko remains proudly and positively on the side of tourism:
“I grew up inside tourism. I am tourism. I eat tourism. Everything is tourism. I put food on the table because of tourism. And I will remain tourism.”
For her, the survival of the industry is a non-negotiable. “Lockdown has affected us a lot in terms of salaries. People are not getting any salaries, except for UIF TERS. A lot of families have been affected, 24 people (counting myself) have lost their income, and most of us are supporting families.
The impact on women – especially in Women’s Month – is hard to bear. Tinyiko believes there has been more “brutality” and “problems” within households during lockdown and she encourages women to lean on each other for support: “We mustn’t lose our women during lockdown. Don’t keep quiet. Talk to each other, stay strong and help one another.”
Tinyiko Hlungwani spoke to Natalia Rosa, view their #IAmTourism conversation here.