Kelly Campbell is a native of Indiana and founder of The Village Experience, a responsible tourism company. Kelly travels year-round taking groups of people to fund projects in Kenya, India, and Guatemala, improving the lives of women and children, and providing water to remote villages.
I caught up with Kelly at her home base in Lamu, Kenya, where she has been living since 2016. Lamu is a small island town northeast of Mombasa, best known for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Away from the bustling cities, as a resident there is not much to do in the Arabic-influenced town except feeling the cool ocean breeze, watching picturesque sunsets while sailing in a dhow, walking through narrow historic streets alongside donkeys, or eating fresh seafood at local restaurants. Here’s what she had to say about using travel to help people, life in Lamu, and how she spends her downtime.
What made you move to Lamu?
I first discovered Lamu in 2011 and immediately fell in love with Shela Village, a small beach community located at the end of Lamu Island. It has become the perfect sanctuary for me in between the many trips I run all over the world. I return to a haven of healthy vegetables, freshly caught seafood, flavorful cappuccinos, daily massages, and lots of downtime to read and sail to my heart’s content. This is exactly the setting I need to keep my sanity in between travels.
What’s your favorite part about living in Lamu?
Having the fisherman knock on my door asking if I’d like fresh caught lobster, calamari, fish, prawns, or crab. The answer is always YES!
What was your inspiration for founding The Village Experience?
It’s my opinion that Americans need to get out into the world more and experience the richness, diversity, and beauty of cultures outside of their own. This leads to better understanding, breaking down of barriers, and tolerance towards different religions, among other things.
How are you supporting the local community in Lamu?
Since I first traveled to Lamu when tourism was at an all-time low, I connected to the local dhow captains, fisherman, hotel owners, and families that were all struggling with how to survive on an island dependent on tourism dollars. I heard from them about the difficulty of keeping and maintaining their Mozambique-style dhows when there were no people coming to the island for sunset cruises or Manda Toto snorkeling trips. I met fishermen who would go out to the sea and catch an entire boat full of tuna, snapper, and king mackerel, but have no one to sell it to. I spoke to the director of the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) about the obstacles the schools in the areas were facing since parents no longer had the income needed to pay school fees or provide nourishing food to their kids.
These encounters inspired me to work my hardest to promote tourism to Lamu. Lamu is a magical place where donkeys and dhows rule the transportation lanes, where Swahili architecture inspires visions of a bygone period, and where people are still genuine in their efforts to meet you and get to know you. They want you to love Lamu as much as they do. This was the safest and most peaceful place I had ever encountered in all my travels to over 60 countries in the last 15 years.
I was determined to showcase Lamu in a positive image through multiple social media channels. The Village Experience offered several trips every year and word spread that Lamu was indeed as magical as I portrayed it to be. Now in 2018, we are sending people to Lamu almost every week — whether it’s individuals coming for vacation, couples wanting a romantic getaway, families looking for beach time, or groups of friends wanting to explore the islands. We work with local hotels, boat owners, women’s associations, boutiques, artisan workshops, and projects to support their development.
Our groups have raised money to support Safari Doctors (medical volunteers in rural communities) medical sails, build classrooms at Twashukuru, provide desks for Shela Primary School, distribute burkinis at the local women’s pool, install new mattresses at the girl’s orphanage in Lamu Town, and conserve sea turtles throughout the archipelago.
What other projects do you work with?
Women’s Interlink Foundation in Kolkata, India, works to root out human-trafficking, prostitution, and abuse against women by working on prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation back into the community. The Village Experience has provided Women’s Interlink Foundation with dormitories and new playgrounds for the rescue centers, sewing machines for their tailoring program, administrative support for the entire street kids program, funding for their artisan development program, and we even built the entire Tribal Village Home Stay for their community-based tourism program in Shantiniketan.
Vamos Adelante in Esquintla, Guatemala works in 24 rural villages along the slopes of Volcano Fuego. Most of the communities survive on seasonal work from the coffee plantations and sugar cane fields, and employ children in their families to help bring in extra income. The Village Experience has assisted Vamos Adelante in building new classrooms, renovated current schools, constructing a recreational center, starting a women’s tailoring program, installing concrete floors/tin roofs/rain catchment systems for families in the program, and even providing a new cement mixer for the construction teams.
What do you do for fun when not traveling?
I pack up my cooler with chilled white wine, fresh pasta salad, locally made bread, and imported chocolate, and go sailing with my friends on Hippo Dhow or The Gypsy Catamaran. There is something so relaxing and therapeutic about being on the water, especially the Indian Ocean. We sail through the channels, anchor the boat on Manda Beach or one of the local sand bars, and then swim, walk the beach, and enjoy our cooler.