How a dog-grooming business helped bring the gift of mobility to a village in Tanzania
From her childhood days watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" on TV to her career as a professional dog groomer, Naomi Hughes was drawn to animals. Traveling to the Serengeti plains to see the wildlife up close became a lifelong dream.
But when she and her husband Mark Hughes visited Tanzania for the first time on OAT's Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge & Tented Safari and Best of Kenya & Tanzania adventures, something happened that she didn't expect: she fell in love with the people instead. "Although words cannot begin to describe the animals of the Serengeti, I have learned that the people of Tanzania are even more unbelievable," she says.
It All Began with a Single Bike
Grand Circle Foundation supports three primary schools in the Tanzanian village of Karatu, and both itineraries included a stop at one of these schools. The Hugheses were struck by the responsibilities faced by the children, in addition to their schoolwork. "Their chores are nothing like the chores that the children in America do, if any," Naomi points out. By contrast, these children have chores to do before they even walk to school, then walk home to more chores that are critical to the family's very survival. "It's mind boggling," she says.
Because of the importance of these chores to the family, getting back and forth to school becomes a big hurdle, according to Mark. "If they have to walk three or four miles each way, that's time taken away from the family," he says. "It impacts their chance of going to secondary school."
Impressed by Grand Circle Foundation's commitment to education, the couple looked for a way to help the cause and decided to donate a bicycle. "When you drive around, you can see how a bicycle could make life so much easier—not just for the children, but for women carrying water, and the whole family," Naomi reveals. "It's amazing how something so inexpensive could impact their lives."
Their OAT Trip Leader, Radis Laizer, knew of a boy whose father had helped Radis himself get a start in life, and he was instrumental in helping to secure the donated bike for the boy. When the bike was presented, "the boy came in his best clothes, and he was so polite and so grateful," Naomi recalls. "He was very solemn and didn't even smile until we rang the bell on his new bicycle."
More than a Pet Project: A Passion
The Hugheses returned to their home in Hamilton, Virginia, determined to do more to help the families of the Karatu schoolchildren. They wanted to donate more bicycles, but they knew they needed help to do it. "I'm a logistics guy," Mark admits. "I knew we needed someone on the ground in Tanzania to make it happen." They sent an email to Grand Circle Foundation asking for assistance. Two days later, they received an enthusiastic response, and Pets Providing Pedals was born.
From that moment, proceeds from every grooming at Omistar, Naomi's dog-grooming shop, was dedicated to the bike-procurement program, and customers were invited to donate, as well. "People want to contribute," Naomi says. "They're behind us one-thousand percent, and they like knowing that one-hundred percent of every donation goes toward a bike." Naomi also donates all of her own tips toward the cause.
A Donation Packed with Emotion
By the time the Hugheses embarked on their third OAT adventure to Africa in May, they had raised funds for the purchase of 45 bicycles. Willy Chambulo, Managing Director/Owner of Kibo Safaris and an OAT travel partner in Tanzania, handled the task of buying and storing the bicycles until the Hugheses arrived. They were matching, sturdy, brand-new bicycles, still pristine in their plastic wrapping and equipped with all the accessories—from lights to bells.
When the presentation was made, Naomi and Mark went out of their way to make sure no one in the village was inconvenienced. The ceremony was scheduled after the regular school day and after their OAT small group's school visit. The afternoon was at leisure for the travelers, and the Hugheses assured them that they were under no obligation to participate. When the time for the ceremony arrived, however, every member of the OAT group was there.
The school went out of its way to show its appreciation to Naomi and Mark. All the children stayed for the presentation, filling the blackboards with artwork, lining the streets as the group arrived, strewing their path with petals, and hanging flowers around the necks of everyone. The Grand Circle group was presented with a special tea, a luncheon, and an African gift—all of which the Hugheses reimbursed. "We didn't want something we were doing to cause them an extra expense," Mark explains.
In all, 720 students were present, 71 of whom were graduating. Many of the graduates had family members present, as well. "It was really important to me that the bicycles were distributed fairly," Naomi says. That meant giving equally to boys and girls in a traditionally male-dominated culture. A decision was made to pull names at random, to ensure there was no favoritism. The drawing alternated between a box with girls' names and a box with boys' names. As a tribute to Naomi, a girl's name was drawn first. Naomi recalls that, "The little girls' eyes got so big, and the women were so happy that the girls went first!"
According to Naomi and Mark, the children whose names were not chosen were accepting of the situation. "They seemed to understand that sometimes that's the luck of the draw," says Mark. The couple provided each of the 71 graduates with a Frisbee (which has the advantage of being lightweight and packable) and a T-shirt with the Pets Providing Pedals logo on the front and a map of Africa with the names of all the contributing client dogs on the back. The T-shirts are also available for sale to customers in Virginia, to help raise funds for bicycles.
A Project with Real Legs
That event was just the first of many planned for Pets Providing Pedals. "Before we even left for this trip, we booked the next one," says Naomi. "My soul is in Africa." For their fourth OAT African safari, scheduled for May/June next year, Naomi and Mark have set 100 bicycles as their goal, including bicycles for the school's 19 teachers—only one of whom currently has transportation.
"It's not a charity, it's an opportunity," Naomi insists. To her, it's paying forward the chance to follow a dream, just as someone she barely knew gave her the opportunity to learn the profession she has practiced and loved for 36 years. "We will always go back every year until we're no longer able to do it. It's made such an impact."
Mark concurs. "It's touching to be able to give something to someone who has very little," he says. "If this program takes off the way we hope, maybe future OAT travelers will want to travel with us to be part of such a wonderful cause."