This beautiful film was just released! Have a look to learn about projects and communities we are proudly supporting in Tanzania.
This beautiful film was just released! Have a look to learn about projects and communities we are proudly supporting in Tanzania.
Thomson Safaris’ guests, Lori and Mark made a memorable safari experience truly unforgettable. Read the story of their Maasai wedding vow renewal ceremony below.
Lori’s desire to visit Africa was realized when she was a young girl; over the years, her connection and passion for Africa’s wildlife and people grew more intense. “I’ve been listening to Lori talk about Africa for all 20 years of our marriage,” joked her husband, Mark. So for their 20th wedding anniversary, Mark surprised Lori with a Tanzanian safari, which they would enjoy the following year. For Lori, the surprises didn’t stop there!
Over the course of the next year, Mark secretly made detailed plans with our staff and the local Maasai community for a very special event on the eve of their 21st anniversary – a wedding vow renewal ceremony, Maasai-style. Mark was very diligent to make the ceremony as authentic as possible. “We are in their home, we are their guests and I wanted the ceremony to be authentic and true to their culture,” he said. The events of the ceremony and the traditional garments they were to wear were crafted well ahead of their visit to Tanzania.
On the day of the ceremony, the Thomson staff told all of the guests at the Nyumba camp they were invited to a local wedding. “I thought we hit the jackpot,” said Lori. “How lucky are we to experience something unplanned like this? So few people get this kind opportunity!” Lori immediately, and very excitedly, told Mark that she wanted to get to the ceremony site early to sit in the front row. Mark, who was instructed to keep Lori in their tent until preparations were finalized, searched for excuses to stall her. “Maybe you want to freshen up first…? Why do you want to sit in the front row, we don’t even know these people…? I don’t want to be the first ones there…” Mark kept struggling with reasons to keep Lori from leaving the tent.
Fortunately Mark was able to divert Lori’s frustration with his unsubstantiated excuses when he heard Maasai chanting in the distance; this was his signal the ceremony was beginning. He was finally able to reveal his plans to his very shocked wife, “The wedding that we are going to…it is not for a local member of the Maasai village, it is for us. We are getting re-married in a traditional Maasai wedding ceremony.” Lori was overwhelmed with emotion. “I had no idea what was going to happen next and I wanted to be present in the moment and take it all in,” she said.
A group of chanting Maasai warriors approached their tent and collected Mark and Lori to prepare them for the ceremony. Lori was escorted to a group of eight women who dressed her in the wedding garments they made for her, which included a dress and a beaded headpiece. “The garments and the jewelry were elaborate and so beautiful, we were touched by the amount of time and work they must have put into making them for us. It really meant a lot to us.”
There was a flurry of activity encircling Lori; Mark could barely make out what was happening through the blur of the women’s hands as they prepared her for the ceremony. He was able to see a special moment as young girls smiled proudly as they adorned Lori’s ears with beautiful beaded earrings they had made for her. He will never forget Lori’s face, in the midst of the excitement, beaming with pure emotion.
Mark and Lori with their guide, Robert, their son, Adam and Ellie, Mark's mom. The ceremony was a surprise to the whole family!
Maasai women dressing Lori in traditional wedding garments they made for the ceremony.
Johnson translated the ceremony from Maa to English.
The ceremony included blessings from Maasai elders and a heartfelt exchange of vows between the couple.
The couple described it as a true cultural exchange with the Maasai. “We learned about their culture but they also learned about our culture."
The ceremony began when a group of chanting Maasai came to collect Mark and Lori to prepare them for the event.
The ceremony was held around the fire at the camp and began with four elders giving their blessings. Mark presented a photo from their wedding day, which was almost exactly 21 years prior, and began reciting his renewal vows. As Mark’s vows were being translated into Maa, he watched the translator’s eyes widen — this was a bit of culture shock! “In the Maasai culture, the bride and groom don’t really speak to one another during the ceremony,” Mark explained, “so for Maasai guests to hear us sharing emotional and heartfelt words and deep expressions of love for one another was completely foreign to them.”
This was one of the many moments the couple describes as a true cultural exchange with the Maasai. “We learned about their culture but they also learned about our culture. The last thing we wanted was this to feel like a show they put on for their American guests. The Maasai were so warm and welcoming and they really seemed to embrace and genuinely engage in the whole experience.”
The Maasai were as moved by the experience as Mark and Lori. “We are honored to bless this wedding and host you people from America,” said one traditional elder and spiritual leader. “Any of your family or friends or anyone is welcome to have a beautiful celebration like this one with the Maasai of our village.”
Since they’ve returned home, Lori and Mark are still relishing in the experience. “It was the convergence of a meaningful and spiritual place with a deeply emotional moment,” said Lori, “It was the perfect combination to make this experience a once in a lifetime event for which I will forever be grateful. I was so blown away with my husband conceiving of this idea and planning every last detail, and pulling it off without a hitch. Honestly, I have no idea how he did it. I am also so appreciative of the Thomson staff and their willingness to help plan this event and create such a unique memory for us. They were amazing. Asante Sana!”
Thomson Safaris sponsored a group of Maasai women from several villages in Loliondo to participate in Arusha’s International Women’s Day activities in March.
International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, political, and social achievements of women past, present and future. The events, which are held annually across the world, range from seminars, conferences, and to political rallies and networking events. Women from all over Tanzania gathered for this multi-day conference under the theme of “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”
Over the course of a few days, the Maasai women attended seminars on topics such as domestic violence, entrepreneurship, human rights, HIV/AIDS and Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The seminars not only increased their awareness about these issues relevant to their daily lives, but also supplied the women with strategies and knowledge to work on these issues and to improve their quality of life.
Maasai women rally at International Women's Day
Maasai women attending International Women's Day seminars
Selling Maasai beadwork
The Loliondo women not only enjoyed learning the valuable information covered at the Women’s Day events but also found modern life in Arusha to be a learning experience in itself. Most of these women have never left their remote villages, which made Arusha’s busy streets and crowds, along with things we take for granted, like electricity, an eye-opening experience.
The women intend to share their newly-gained knowledge about women’s rights, violence prevention, and the importance of better access to education for girls with their communities.
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.”
Like many first time travelers, I was initially drawn to Tanzania because of its phenomenal wildlife populations. You often hear stories of lion kills, cheetahs running, huge herds of wildebeest and zebra, leopard sightings, and the possibility of checking the Big 5 off your safari checklist. With these images ingrained in my mind, I left for Tanzania in 2006 with dreams of seeing it all. While I came away with more than my share of stories, it was not the animals that touched me the most. It was the people.
When I found out that I was going to join the Signature Thomson Safari in May, I was most looking forward to the Maasai visit portion of the trip. Although I have spent a considerable amount of time in Tanzania, I hadn’t yet traveled with Thomson and had the opportunity to meet the Maasai in their local setting. The Maasai I had met had either left their bomas long ago to live in the cities or were part of a scheduled visit along well-traveled paths teeming with tourists, which I’ve found can feel a bit contrived and inauthentic.
One day during the Signature Thomson Safari last May, my eight safari companions and I got into our Land Rovers and took off for what we were told was an unscheduled, spontaneous village visit. As we approached the village, dozens of kids ran as fast as they could beside our vehicle smiling, laughing and waving at us. As we got out of the vehicle, we saw a group of Maasai boys, about 30-40 strong, gathering on the outskirts of the boma.
Maasai woman and son in front of the boma she is building to honor her son's achievement.
Maasai women singing and chanting during the ceremony. The festivities warranted full regalia, jewelry and face paint for these proud mothers.
Warrior marching in for the start of the ceremony.
Warriors watching the jumping circle, admiring and laughing at the various attempts by their peers to jump the highest.
Young warrior smiling
Maasai woman singing with young son on her back.
Young Maasai warriors marching in to join their mothers in song and celebration.
Warrior preparing to show off his jumping skills in the circle.
Maasai women chanting before being joined by the young warriors.
Maasai women singing to their sons in honor of their impending inititations.
As we walked into the main area of the boma, a group of 20 women started singing, jumping and laughing as if on cue. We naively assumed they were singing a welcome song for us. After several minutes, the group of boys began dancing slowly towards the women to the deep, rumbling beat of a make-shift horn crafted from a plastic pipe. The women began to move towards them and the two groups combined creating one harmonious chant. Everyone in the village was looking on, clapping and singing – very few of the Maasai paid any attention to us standing there watching. At this point, we were in complete awe, and passed a look around to one another that said “this was definitely not planned for us”.
Our Thomson guide, James (who is Maasai), explained that we had stumbled upon a rite of passage ceremony for the communities’ young generation of warriors. We quickly came to realize the women were not singing for our benefit; the women were singing to the warriors, their sons, in honor of their impending initiations. The warriors were showing off their skills by forming a circle and jumping, and they were celebrating their long journey to this point.
James further explained that this ceremony marked the boys’ transition into adulthood as well as a transition to move into a new manyatta (group of huts) specially built by their mothers. In the near future, once warrior training was complete, another ceremony was to take place where the mothers shave their sons’ long, braided hair to officially mark the warriors’ transition into the category of elders.
We couldn’t believe we had the opportunity to experience this rare, intimate moment. The raw emotion that the mothers and warriors displayed – love, devotion, pride and happiness – moved each of us. Though we could not communicate directly or speak Maa, we had been present for something more powerful than words can describe. What surprised me the most was that we were not looked at as unwelcome visitors, instead we were welcomed into the ceremony as part of the community. This is the “karibu spirit” that Tanzanians embody, regardless of tribe. This is the reason I love returning to Tanzania year after year.
Thomson Safaris was honored to host American Ambassador to Tanzania, Alfonso Lenhardt, his wife Jackie Lenhardt and USAID Environmental Officer, Gilbert Kajuna last week.
During his visit, the Ambassador officially opened construction of teacher’s housing in Sukenya Village, a project being supported by Focus on Tanzanian Communities and Thomson Safaris. In a speech to the students of Sukenya Primary School, he said,
“The school…and this wonderful structure that Thomson Safaris has made available will provide the opportunity for these youngsters to learn what is right about the world and how that knowledge can preserve the Maasai. So sitting in this group are future doctors, scientists, engineers, any number of specialties and professions that will help the Maasai people.”
Ambassador Lenhardt also visited with the Enyuata Women’s Collaborative, a group of Maasai women who have progressively established several small businesses. Their initiatives have been supported by Thomson Safaris and Focus on Tanzanian Communities.
During the remainder of his visit in the Serengeti, Lenhardt gathered information on the proposed road to be built through the northern Serengeti and, on invitation by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, visited the newly repatriated rhinos from South Africa.