A warm smile in Caprivi

Bertha, assistant manager at Nkasa Lupala lodge
Bertha, assistant manager at Nkasa Lupala lodge

Bertha Lunyazo  has a huge smile. She just can’t help it. She’s the assistant manager at the new lodge in Wuparo Conservancy, and very much the new face of tourism in Caprivi.

Nkasa Lupala is the local name for Mamili National Park, and of the new lodge owned by the Micheletti family from Italy, run as a joint venture with the conservancy. The lodge is committed to employing local people and the entire staff of 12 come from the area.

Bertha was born and raised in Sangwali, a small dusty village in the triangle between the Kwando and Linyanti rivers, set in the southern-most tip of Caprivi. It’s a village where prospects are poor and girls learn to pound maize at an early age, but Bertha had other ideas.

She started work at Lianshulu lodge, training on the job as a chef. Owned by Wilderness Safaris, Lianshulu set the standards in Caprivi, where its thatched roof offered shaded luxury next to the meandering Kwando river. The company set standards in other ways. It has trained local people throughout Namibia, and its lodges are often run by young Namibians who have come up through the ranks – like Bertha.

She moved to the new Matota Lodge as head chef and trained the kitchen staff before moving to Serra Cafema as a relief manager. Also on a river – the Kunene – the comparison between the lodges stops there. Serra Cafema is set in rugged mountains, and looks across the rapids to Angola. It’s a 300 kilometre trek from Opuwo, and the guests fly in.

For a manager, the main challenge is to plan ahead. The supply truck struggles up there once a month, and the manager has to make sure that nothing runs out. Although the facilities are simple, Serra Cafema caters to the luxury tourist market, and visitors expect the best. The managers of these top lodges ring each other up to find out about the guests before they arrive. What are their likes and dislikes? Any special food requirements?  “We help each other out,” says Bertha, who by that time was becoming a tourist professional.

The smile helps, but Bertha also knows how to chat to visitors. Some are more interested in others about local culture and people. Guests usually ask Bertha where she is from, and from there she can gauge their interest and start a conversation, perhaps about raising children in villages remote from city centres and modern facilities.

Bertha knows about that. She has an eleven year old daughter who lives with her Gran in Katima Mulilo. She missed her, and based far away in Kunene she also pined for home, and the lush green trees of Caprivi.

So it was on a visit home that she heard about plans for a luxury lodge just a few kilometres from Sangwali village. She rang Simone Micheletti, the manager owner, and offered her services. Simone was amazed. Here was a top assistant manager – and a local at that – offering to train his staff.

Guests notice the service at the lodge. Little things like the cutlery being wiped before it is correctly laid on the table. “Training is not easy,” says Bertha. “You trick is not to be strict, but to smile and understand.” All of the staff at the lodge were new to tourism, but they all learnt quickly.

Lodges like Nkasa Lupala that have joint venture agreements with communal conservancies believe that the future of tourism management should be in local hands. It is ladies like Bertha Lunyazo who will run tomorrow’s lodges. Although the Micheletti family controls the investment decisions, Bertha is ready and able to take operational control of the lodge. That’s something to smile about.

Steve Felton
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