Yes, I’m THAT Gemma who was featured in the TV documentary ‘Cutting Edge: It’ll Never Last’ in 2004 when I married Lesikar Ole Ngila, and was shortlisted for the Most Dynamisante Woman of the Year Award for catalysing a grassroots artivism campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage in Maasai communities.
Or am I?
You probably imagine that you know me pretty well by now, if you’ve watched the video. But I tell you, you have NO idea who I really am.
The video was carefully manufactured to show my life and my personality in a particular way. Some of the realities of my life, like our brick house in the city and the fact that I was the director of a successful NGO and a safari company, were completely ignored. Other things were exaggerated out of all proportion, and given far more significance in the video than they ever had in real life. Some of the things I said were taken out of context, and made to mean the opposite of what I intended.
So, to set the record straight: Lesikar and I never supported FGM, and never will.
Our daughters have not had FGM, and never will.
And I didn’t live full-time in a mud hut, or spend my life doing chores in the hot sun.
To some, the video makes me look brave, pioneering and inspirational. To others, it makes me look naive, deluded, and bordering on mentally ill. Interesting, isn’t it, how these videos hold up a mirror? What you see in the video isn’t me. It isn’t the `real’ Gemma Burford. It’s an image of a part of yourself that you probably never knew was there: the Visionary-Adventurer.
Maybe you’re looking at it and thinking, ‘Hey! I could do that! I could challenge people’s assumptions about who and what I am, push the boundaries, face my fears, chase my dreams, change my life, do what I always wanted to do, believe in love, follow my heart, start a business, start an NGO, build a school, make a difference…’
And if that’s the case, what I’d say is: Great! Get off YouTube, go out there, and do it! We can re-invent ourselves at any moment. We can pick any day to start all over again. We can start shaping reality the way we want it. We’re never too old to chase the dream.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned that I’d like to share with you, it would be this: Just check your privilege first, watch your assumptions, question your motivations, and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Don’t go to Tanzania, or any other ‘less economically developed’ country, as the great white saviour who’s going to Make The Difference. Go as a student; go as an apprentice; go as a learner; go as a friend and a fellow human being. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re any better than anyone else, or that you have a deeper understanding of a place than the people who live there.
On the other hand, you might have watched the video with a sense of horror, thinking ‘That Gemma! Urrrggh, I hate her so much. How could she DO that? How could she SAY that? How could she MARRY that…that…lion-murderer?’
That fictional, 25-year-old Gemma? Sometimes I don’t like her either.
But remember this: when something really, really triggers you, it’s usually because it reminds you of something in yourself that you haven’t owned.
Maybe you hate Fictional Gemma because she reminds you of all your unfufilled dreams, all the stuff you were never brave enough to do, and all the cultural taboos that you’ve never dared to break. Maybe your inner Visionary-Adventurer is feeling a bit neglected.
Maybe it’s because she’s been wrongly painted as ‘turning her back on British men’ to marry someone from another culture. Hey, I never had anything against British men. I just happened to fall in love with someone who grew up in Tanzania.
Or maybe it’s just because you’ve been raised to be a white supremacist, in which case… there’s a Swahili phrase, Pole sana, which doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English. It means something along the lines of ‘I’m sorry for you. You have my sympathy.’ It probably isn’t your fault that you’ve had that kind of `education’. But I hope one day you figure out that human beings are human beings, wherever they are in the world, and whatever colour their skin is.
I’m no longer maintaining this blog, or using this website as a portal for my business. It just took too much emotional labour to filter through the hate mail to find potential clients, and so now I’ve decided to completely rebrand, reframe and re-launch my business. It’s not as though I was ever clear what I was trying to do with this site, anyway. I had to admit, in the end, that one of my critics was nearly right: it wasn’t that I was a hot mess, but the website certainly was.
I figure the people who really need my professional services will be led to me anyway, through another route.