Who We Are: Thomas Bilauti

Below is one of two interviews conducted separately with our founders, Thomas and Michael. Neither person saw the questions or answers in advance, or of the other. We’re sharing them here as a way for you to get to know us better. We hope to see you soon!

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Thomas Bilauti: Joining Maasai Culture with Tanzania Tourism

Ever wanted more from your life? Ever have to fight for it – to the point your family thought you were dead? Thomas’ story is one of how education sparked an internal desire to do more, see more, learn more, and help others more. Without, of course, changing his core nature of being a Maasai. Reading about this co-owner of Twende Maasai Tanzania will be an education in-and-of itself. Can you imagine what it will be like to be a client?!

The Maasai live a pastoral life with no clocks or calendars so do you know how old are you?

Frankly speaking, I don’t know my birth date, but I'm approximately 27 years old. This is the story from my Dad and my Mom: they told me I was born when the sun and moon were in a specific place in the sky, so when they return to that place, I have to say, "This is my birthday!"

Why did you leave your village and want an education?

My Dad didn't want me to go to school, he wanted me to stay and be a traditional Maasai. One day, when I was herding our cattle away from the village, the local government came and took me away! Thereby, I started primary school. For two to three months my family was looking for me – they had lost me, where was Thomas? The government went to my village to inform my Dad I was in school and tell him he had to stay away from me. But my Dad came to the school one day, and he said, "you are going to lose everything – you are not going to respect the culture, not respect the customs or our traditions". He tried to find a way to get me out of the school. I told him one day he might have to go to the hospital and I would be able to read and speak Swahili. So this is what I wanted – one day to help my people.

Traditionally, as Maasai we don’t educate our kids. We think when you educate, you change that kid completely – change them physically and mentally. My Dad was not happy because I could be a different person. He wanted me to be the same-same person who could respect the culture, who could marry five wives (as he had) and keep practicing everything in Maasailand. I thought if I could read a book, it was fine to know another language because I could communicate with people outside of Maasailand. I had an interaction with people from other villages, people who were not Maasai, and they had a different point of view. They were speaking Swahili and some spoke a little English. I was curious, why not me? I want to speak ten languages!

I also wanted to change the outer appearance of my life. I could still be Maasai in my heart, but with different opinion, a different point of view. I wanted to show that education is not a weapon to destruct our culture, but a weapon to open up our eyes as long as we don’t change our attitudes.

Where did you have to sleep when you were in secondary school?

I had a thought, "I have to go to Arusha to start working as a watchman whereby I can get some salary to pay my secondary school fees." I walked for three days until I reached Arusha. Then I slept outside for a week – no proper food, water, or clothes. I couldn’t change clothes. When I was walking along the street I came across a Maasai from West Kilimanjaro who was working at a place as a watchman. "Yes," he said, "I have a place to accommodate you." He was sleeping near the gate. We had no mattress, we were sleeping on top of boxes for two months with no news about jobs, and no regiment of food, so we had only one meal a day.

When I got a job working at Clock Tower, I called another Maasai from Ngorongoro and he told me, "Yes, I have a place, perhaps you can sleep at my place." He seemed to be a good friend. He gave me food, proper clothes, and shelter. I started going to secondary school and went for two years. When I completed my secondary school, I got into trouble at my job as a watchman: I fell asleep and some people stole a tire. The business owners took me to the police station and my family had no news about me. I was at the police station for two months. Nobody was there to give me food or bail me out so the government decided to release me. When I got out I had no transportation, no pocket money, and no proper clothes. Then I walked the long distance back home- four days of walking. When I reached home, my mom burst into tears because she thought I was killed. Even my dad cried. I looked different, thinner and in very bad shape.  I was already a new person – I had learned some English, I knew how to write, I had a different thought compared to those people who were always in the same-same place. I went back to my dad again for apologies because I went to secondary school. He blessed me and gave me the proper permission to do whatever I want to do. He taught me three things: respect, love, and honesty. I was not to change my attitude into bad reactions.

How did you meet Michael?

I told my Mom I need to go back to Arusha, and I need her to make a lot of Maasai beads for me to sell to help pay for education in toursim. The second time I came to Arusha, this time as a seller, I was in the same situation: I had nowhere to sleep and no daily food; so if I eat today, fine, if not, tomorrow is fine. When I finished selling for almost a year, it was 2011. I went back home for another year then I came back to Arusha in 2013 to sell again. At end of 2013, I met Michael at Clock Tower and we had a few minutes of talking. We exchanged contact info with no idea that perhaps we could be good friends. We stayed in touch for almost three years. Then he came to visit me and we did Kilimanjaro together. When the trek was done he asked me about my future. I told him I want to have a tourism company and a website, and since he knows English and business perhaps we could have one together. He went back to the U.S. and our friendship continued to grow. That's how we started becoming great friends and now ones who have a company together.

What are your dreams for the company?

In five years, I see the company being very big. I have expectations, like we have seven or ten cars and have other offices even outside of Tanzania, particularly in Kenya. The company can help my family get basic needs, bring employment, and will improve the living standards to my family and even to the community. It will strengthen their life as long as we have them as workers. I also want to establish a community fund so other Maasai can benefit, and do things like go to school if they want to but don't have the money to.

What is a charity you’d like to help and why?

Other than creating a Maasai fund, I want to help people who are orphans because I understand and I feel their situation. Because I have passed many difficulties in life (and kilometers), I want one day to support a kid or two from an orphanage. The orphanage in Arusha I like is Mother Merci.

Which Tanzania National Park is your favorite and why?

Definitely Serengeti National Park. I love it because it was the land of Maasai. When we were dominated by colonialism, the colonial government tried to get Maasai out of there. We said we cannot go anywhere because we are the founders of the place. We are people of cattle. Our cattle need grass and water. If you take us somewhere to town we cannot survive. The government called again, and again Maasai denied, and this is why they divided Serengeti into two places: Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater & Conservation Area. So generally, Ngorongoro is part of Serengeti. Maasai today are in the northern part, the conservation are. Ngorongoro is given property of a multi-land which means tourism can be conducted and Maasai life can be conducted. This is why I love Serengeti because we are in many ways a part of Serengeti.

What is your favorite animal and why?

Lions. I love lions! I love their lifestyle because a male lion is similar to male Maasai – everything stands on his shoulders, and he carries the responsibility of the entire family. For example, a female is good at hunting, but they have to wait for the male to feed first – the female is second and the cubs are last, which shows that everything is on the shoulder of the male. Lions have a strong heart, and males do not understand the meaning of fear. This is why they occupy a very large territory of land regardless of their number. But I also love all animals from the biggest part of my heart, no way out!

What is something you are most proud about Maasai or Tanzania?

What I am proud about in Maasailand is that we maintain peace. We are people of culture, we love ourselves, and we live in a communal way of life, which means what you have is like mine and what is mine is like yours. We always share, and that is why when I first came to Arusha the Maasai helped me out with a place to sleep. What I love in Tanzania is harmony and peace, the country is peaceful. And the country is also the center of tourism. In Maasailand, I want to change the so-called female circumcision because I think it is terrible, but I cannot do it on my own. I have to education other Maasai that even though this is our culture, it is completely bad and female circumcision has no advantages.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Maybe for people to know life is like a long game – life changes, people change, and things change, which means anything is possible. What you do not have today can be yours tomorrow. And what is yours today might belong to someone else tomorrow, so let’s maintain respect, love, and cooperation because we are stronger together and we all need each other.

Those are some very powerful words from a very dedicated, knowledgeable, and compassionate person. This intimate experience of Maasai life is an integral part of Twende Maasai Tanzania. They are serious when they say you will get an authentic experience! Sign up for a safari, trek up Kilimanjaro or Mt Meru, or on a cultural tour unlike any other, and this inspirational man just might change how you see life – for the better!

Who We Are: Michael Gilbert

Below is one of two interviews conducted separately with our founders, Thomas and Michael. Neither person saw the questions or answers in advance, or of the other. We’re sharing them here as a way for you to get to know us better. We hope to see you soon!

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Michael Gilbert: Modern Explorer and Entrepreneur

Sometimes a there’s a ticking deep inside one’s soul that things aren’t acceptable. If it were to happen, will you be one of the people who heed it and make a new life? Michael Gilbert had already achieved "success" by standard measures in a short time, but wasn't satiated. Read on to learn how a visit to Tanzania and meeting co-owner Thomas Bilauti resulted in a full upheaval of normalcy and the start of Twende Maasai Tanzania.

What was your introduction to Africa?

My friend Julia was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Botswana and had asked me to come visit her a few times. Finally, I agreed. At the end of her tenure, she was taking 2-weeks off to travel thru Tanzania and Kenya. We decided to meet at the airport in Dar es Salaam. We traveled along the Tanzania coast from Dar to Tanga, then to Arusha, and finally to Nairobi. This trip is when I fell in love with the country.  

What made you fall in love with Africa?

I loved how beautiful it was and how welcoming the people were, and despite having nothing they seemed genuinely happy and satiated. It was a stark contrast to the life we live (in the US) which is not "less is more" but "more is never enough". It made me realize you can have all the money in the world and still not have a rich life. 

What is your education level and why did you leave your job(s)?

I have a M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University, and a B.S. of Economics and B.A. of Philosophy from Virginia Commonwealth University. By most measures, I had a great job in the U.S., working as an economist for the state and teaching at VCU (which I really loved). However, my day job for the state left me unfulfilled and wanting more. I wasn’t being challenged and I was bored out of my mind. I grew tired of feeling like I was always in a box: whether in my car, my house, the elevator at work, or even my office. It made me realize how much I value being outside and in the outdoors.

Describe a few differences between your past life and new life.

I don’t think of them as different lives but more of an evolution. Life is about figuring out what you value for you – that’s what self-actualization is. By most standards, I went from living as a prince to living as a pauper, but as Warren Buffet says, "price is what you pay and value is what you get". In that sense, I have a much more valuable, fulfilling, and enriched life now than I did before.

How has your interaction with Africa changed or developed your values? Or maybe opened your eyes to different possibilities?

As I alluded to before, the mantra in the U.S. is you need to have a white-collar job, make six figures, have a nice car, a white picket fence, and a family of four. So, my interaction here has opened my eyes in that for me I realized I don’t need those things to feel happy or feel that I’ve lived a good or fulfilling life. Now I feel happier living simpler. For instance, most of the food here is natural, organic, and locally grown; and while there might not be refrigeration for the meat, it’s still local and you’re very connected to the food source. It's helped me realize you don’t need all of the material things you think you need to survive.

What brings you laughter or happiness?

Being outside, playing in the sun, and having fun are the things that bring me laughter and happiness. Also, participating in genuine local and cultural experiences that don’t exist to the same degree as in the U.S. I really enjoy learning new things and challenging myself; and immersing myself so deeply in a culture that is so drastically different from the one known and the one grown up in feels really great. And it creates a whole new world of opportunity for personal growth and development.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of experiencing Tanzania?

Discovering new places, people, and things. Knowing that even though I come from a very different background and culture, the people here are very willing to exchange, accept, and share and learn new ideas.

What is the most challenging part of working – not a tourist – in Tanzania?

Unequivocally, navigating the bureaucratic processes here! Business processes which are repeatable are fair in the sense that everyone has to engage them equally, but they don’t have to be arduous. For instance, to get my residence permit, I first need a work permit. To get a work permit, the company needs all licenses which for us is TALA given by TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks). When we set up the company, it was structured as a 50-50 even split, but if we left it as such, it would be treated as a foreign company and we’d have to own ten safari cars and pay USD 5,000 for the license, versus one car and USD 500 as a local company. Okay, so we decided to change the structure of the company from 50-50 to 52-48 to be treated as a local company, and the recommended path for that was to do a share transfer at TRA (Tanzania Revenue Authority) which we did. When we checked on the transfer we found out the transfer couldn’t be processed because I don’t have a TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number) which I can’t get until… (wait for it) I get a resident permit. Though that's a repeatable business process, it's completely inefficient and not "fair" because it puts the user of the process in an infinite loop.

What are your dreams for the company?

I would love to grow the company into something that's able to provide a source of income for Thomas and his family, and also use the company to establish an opportunity fund for his tribe. [Note: the Maasai Opportunity Fund is a goal that Michael shared is currently under development and would be linked to the company.] And I would love to use the company as a means to educate tourists that the beautiful nature and wildlife they see can only happen with conservation, so we need to put time, energy, and effort into creating bequest value for future generations.

How did you meet your co-owner, Thomas?

When Julia and I were traveling thru Tanzania in October 2013, one of the places we stopped was Arusha, hoping to do a safari. I met Thomas in the town square, also called Clock Tower, where he was selling handmade bead jewelry to help pay for tourism school. Although I didn’t buy any jewelry, we exchanged email addresses and stayed in touch over the next 3-years. We became close enough that I came back to visit him in December 2016, staying with him and his family. We did Kilimanjaro together, and at the end of the trip, he basically said, “Michael, I studied tourism. You see that I was able to plan the whole trip. I got all the prices right. Everything went smoothly and how I said it would. I know tourism, and you know business and English very well. Why don’t we combine forces and start a tourism company together?” And 2-years later, here I am.

What’s one of your favorite activities in Tanzania?

Honestly one of my favorite activities is just being outside and exploring the nature and world around me. (And that it’s sunny and warm year-round!)

Is there one activity you loved in the US but had to give up to live in Tanzania?

One activity I haven't had to completely give up but really love is riding my road bike. The streets here are more conducive to riding a mountain bike or more of a hybrid or gravel grinder, something other than a road bike. I haven’t had the chance or opportunity to purchase a road bike here, so it’s not that I’ve had to completely give it up, but I do really miss cycling in the U.S.

What is a favorite book or movie?

My favorite fiction book right now is probably Neuromancer (William Gibson) or Watership Down (Richard Adams). I’m currently reading Lawrence in Arabia (Scott Anderson) as nonfiction and really enjoy it so far.

What’s a favorite new food in Tanzania?

I love ugali! I have no idea how to explain it. It’s a sticky, flour-based starch, with a consistency thicker than mashed potatoes but similar in appearance. Traditionally, you eat it with your hands and use it to pick up other foods on your plate such as maharage (beans).

Anything else you’d like to add?

We loved to host you, your friends, your family, and show you the beautiful world of Tanzania, and why I fell in love with it in the first place!

Inspiration, intrigue, appreciation, and exploration – there may be other hosts around but seeing the beauty of this amazing country alongside Michael as a tour guide is sure to be rewarding, enjoyable, and in the truest sense of the words, off the beaten path. He knows how to take you there, so join Twende Maasai Tanzania for a safari, trek up Kilimanjaro or Mt Meru, or on a cultural tour. You absolutely won’t find another company offering you the likes of Twende Maasai Tanzania.