It can be an interesting and beautiful thing in life that we rarely end up where we imagined. And often it is the challenges along the way that propel us to discover the unique things about ourselves that up until that point we might have envisioned as setbacks or disadvantages. Those very things might be the key to our callings or our greatest joys.
For lawyer turned boutique hotelier MeryAnne Loum-Martin it was the challenge of taking the French bar exam five years after law school, of all things, that helped her to discover that her uniqueness mattered. With only two months to study years of material while competing against young students fresh from the right preparatory classes, MeryAnne knew she needed a special approach. It was then that she had a light bulb moment about the value in her unique roots. The multi-ethnic and traditional diversity of her background held strength and riches the world deserved to recognize and appreciate.
Loum-Martin owns and runs the eight-acre boutique hotel Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech, Morocco. With 24 rooms, five swimming pools and a clay surface tennis court, Jnane Tamsna is the only black female owned boutique hotel in Morocco. As a hotelier, Loum-Martin’s clientele has included the likes of movie stars Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, and designers Giorgio Armani and Donna Karen. But the woman behind it all has a story fit for a movie herself.
Born in Cote’ D’Ivoire to a Senegalese diplomat father and West Indian lawyer mother, Loum-Martin spent her early childhood in Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, London and Moscow before settling in Paris for law studies and her early career as a young adult.
“I had no chance of passing the exam because all the odds were against me. But if I did something unique, instead of memorizing like everyone else did I thought I’d have a chance of being the standout exam.” So she bought books on the philosophy of law and how to analyze the law. “I wanted to be able to analyze any topic of law by applying my other unique experiences so the examiner would think, ‘Oh my God this person is different!’” Afterward, she realized the significance of that experience, “Being different was a way for me to succeed. I started to look at my difference as wealth. As people of color, our varied cultural traditions are an incredible wealth. I decided that after understanding the western world’s idea of knowledge I needed to bring my own rich identity and ways of knowing on top of that. It made me stronger.”
Loum-Martin has taken her rich global and African identity with her to encourage visitors and guests of Jnane Tamsna to experience the culture and traditions of Morocco. She’s lived there for close to 30 years. “My first degree was in Law but my heart was always in architecture, design and the arts.” She made the connection of hospitality with authentic cultural experiences while on a trip to India in 1984. “The trip changed my life. It made me dream of something else. It was so fascinating, the wealth of culture, architecture, the diversity. I was flying.” At her lodging in India, she had the chance to meet and explore the country with the pioneer of Indian boutique hospitality, Swaroop Singh, the uncle of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who played a role in starting the Heritage Hotels in India. “The hotel atmosphere was magical. It felt like being in someone’s home, someone connected to the history and the culture. As I was traveling alone Swaroop Singh graciously invited me to join him and his family.” She attributes her vocation today to that experience in India. “From my time with the Maharaja I realized, even more, the strength of knowing old cultures and traditions and sharing the wisdom and heritage with others who may look down upon them for lack of understanding and exposure.”
Loum-Martin runs Jnane Tamsna in Marrakech with her husband, Dr. Gary Martin, an ethnobotanist and founder of the Global Diversity Foundation. The couple has created a serene and fertile environment. The grounds are replete with date palms, organic vegetable patches, olive trees and a wide variety of plants and herbs. Most of the food served on the premises is grown in the gardens. Their daughter Thais, is a documentary filmmaker and their son Edward created and runs The Global Migrants Project, a nonprofit that promotes respect for human rights and creates opportunities for sub-Saharan migrants stranded in North Africa.
“People meet me and always ask me how I did all this. But I believe in the power of imagination. Everything that enables people to move ahead in life begins with their ability to imagine something different, a better world for themselves. When I was 9, I was with older children and they were asked, ‘What are you going to do when you are older?’ Even then I knew that I would be selling ideas. That’s what I had and still, have. Material things don’t always mean that you have succeeded. With education, there’s no limit and that’s why it is so crucial to make it available for everyone. Nothing should ever permit you from dreaming big.” Loum-Martin says that she especially wants women of color in Africa and in the world to know that all is possible. “We should be able to imagine seeing ourselves in situations and places, and engaging with people and experiences for which we might have been made to believe we shouldn’t have access to.”
MeryAnne Loum-Martin is currently working with a New York publishing house on a book covering 30 years of style, architecture and designing gardens in Marrakech. “It makes a difference when a book like this is done by an insider. I want Jnane Tamsna to become the visible place of black excellence in North Africa.”
Enuma Okoro is a writer and speaker.