When people told Hellen Lovukenya that she couldn’t make a living fixing cars, she simply didn’t listen to them. “You are a woman! You are Maasai!” they said. “Exactly,” she responded. “I can do whatever I want to do.” Today Lovukenya happens to be one of Thomson Safaris’ most gifted mechanics and a role model for women in Tanzania.
Elbow-deep in engine grease, head buried beneath the hood of a Land Rover Defender, Hellen Lovukenya fiddles with the wiring of a voltage regulator. She’s determined to get the Thomson Safaris vehicle back up and running.
As Thomson’s ace auto-electrician, Lovukenya has zeroed in on the glitch and fixed it. Ten minutes later, the Rover starts up with a roar — alternator and battery fully charged and in solid condition.
Another safari vehicle repaired. Another half dozen sit in the open-air garage under the toil of Thomson’s skilled team of mechanics. Lovukenya wipes the sweat from her brow and takes a swig from a bottle of water before moving on to another job.
“I love this work,” Lovukenya exclaims. “Since I was a little girl, I always enjoyed problem solving and getting my hands dirty.”
As a Maasai woman and mother of two, Lovukenya leads a life that is very different from those of her relatives and ancestors. She excels in a field dominated by men, and her story serves as an inspiration to thousands of young Tanzanian women struggling to do the same.
“When I was growing up, it was rare for Maasai girls to even go to school,” she says. “But now more and more girls are being educated. I believe in the workforce things can change, too.”
Becoming a mechanic
By the time she turned 17, Hellen Lovukenya had already overcome extraordinary obstacles in pursuing her education. She was fortunate that her father, a Maasai from northern Tanzania, completely supported her desire to attend school despite opposition from his extended family. Highly educated himself, he worked as an engineer for the national electric company. However, the nature of his job kept the family on the move as he was regularly transferred from one end of the country to the other.
“I can’t even count how many schools I attended,” Lovukenya says, noting that she has lived in more than seven regions. “Even then, I had an interest in fixing cars. I used to watch my dad fixing things all the time at home. But I still knew my parents would not be supportive of my dream to become a mechanic.”
Later, while attending Arusha Secondary School, Lovukenya began to sneak away when she did not have classes, as she had convinced the owner of a nearby garage to teach her the basics of auto repair in exchange for doing odd jobs. Surprised at how fast the young student picked up the basics, the owner told Lovukenya she could easily get work as a mechanic if she pursued vocational studies.
Once she graduated from school and shared her dream with her parents, however, Lovukenya felt like she had crashed head first into a brick wall. “No way!” summed up their response. Since their daughter had passed her exams and qualified to attend teachers’ college, Lovukenya’s parents said she was destined to become a teacher, which they believed to be more suitable for a woman.
“I am very stubborn and hard-headed,” Lovukenya says with a smile. “When my parents would not let me study mechanics, I told them I was going to join the army and be a soldier. When they struggled with me over that, I decided to just stay home and help them to farm and look after the cows.”
Yet again, Lovukenya remained determined, surreptitiously studying auto-mechanics via correspondence courses and eventually passing several exams to obtain certificates and diplomas. Soon enough, she found work in a local garage.
“My parents and relatives were still completely against it at first,” she recalls. “It took a long time for people to get used to me being a mechanic. Some of my uncles confronted my father and told him he had failed to guide me properly, and I was a lost cause. But I begged my father just to give me freedom and the opportunity.”
From fixing Land Rovers to Strengthening Communities
Joining Thomson Safaris in 2001, Lovukenya exhibited not only skilled hands and a quick mind, but also one of the company’s more vibrant personalities. Those who first meet Hellen might mistake her for being soft spoken. However, they soon learn that Lovukenya speaks her mind, and she speaks it well. With broad shoulders and a piercing gaze, the Maasai mechanic has the calm, patient demeanor of someone wise before her years.
She says that her relatives eventually accepted her career wholeheartedly, especially after she was able to help support many of them. “Now even my brothers and relatives are starting to send their daughters to school. They have seen that if I can do it, so can any girl,” she says. “This makes me happy more than anything.”
Lovukenya balances her career by looking after her family, including an 11-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. In her scarce personal time, she says she enjoys reading novels, such as the classic African works of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Most recently, Lovukenya expanded her career by assuming additional responsibilities as Thomson Safaris’ volunteer coordinator. The position requires her to work with a vast number of Tanzanian communities and different cultures in setting up volunteer programs for Thomson travelers. From prestigious universities to groups of families, she sets up volunteer teaching, construction, and cultural exchange programs and serves as a liaison between communities and volunteers.
“The community work is actually more challenging than repairing vehicles,” she says. “Automotive mechanics are rather simple once you learn. But people are much more difficult to understand. When I started doing this work, though, I truly began to feel like a dream that I had been dreaming for a long time had started to come true.”
Inspiring Women to Empower Themselves
It’s near quitting time at the Thomson Safaris auto garage and headquarters in Arusha. After thoroughly scrubbing her face, hands, and arms, Lovukenya changes from her navy blue mechanic’s jumpsuit to a comfortable pair of jeans. Other staff members have already begun to board the large bus that takes them back to town.
“Overall, women need more self-confidence in Tanzania,” says Lovukenya. “Too many women have the capability but they lack the confidence. I would love to tell girls that they have the capability. They can succeed. You just have to be determined. It’s the same for the Maasai. The strength is with the women who will make changes and make sure their children go to school. They are the future.”
And what about her own daughter, Jennifer? Will she follow in mama’s footsteps over some grease-slicked garage floor?
“No. She wants to be a doctor,” says Lovukenya. “She can be whatever she wants to be.”