Monthly Archives: May 2017
One of the greatest tragedies of the West is that we’ve lost the magic of song.
In the Maasai community, singing is part of everyday life. People sing to praise God, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or followers of their own indigenous spiritual tradition (where ‘Engai’ is actually translated more accurately as ‘Goddess’).
People sing to preserve their memories and histories, most of which are still unwritten. All the rites of passage have their own songs associated with them, including weddings, ceremonies to bless unborn children, child-naming ceremonies, initiation into adulthood, and the transition from warriorhood into elderhood (although the latter doesn’t have an equivalent for women), and funerals.
Songs are used to welcome important visitors, to launch projects, or – as in the photo above – to entertain parents at the school Open Day. Crucially, they can also be used to open people’s minds to the possibility of change: in our project to reduce the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM), we started every seminar and workshop with a performance by a women’s commuity choir.
Yet, in so-called ‘developed’ countries, we’ve created a culture in which most people are afraid to sing.
Shows like ‘The X Factor’, ‘American Idol’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – where harsh criticism of people’s vocal performance is seen as entertaining – certainly haven’t helped. But a bigger issue is that, with the decline in church attendance, most people just don’t have a space in which they can sing freely without being criticised or judged.
When I recently started attending my local Baptist church in England and the very first song we sang was one that I recognised from an international church that I used to attend in Tanzania, it felt like coming home. But traditional church services don’t appeal to everyone, and despite the vast amount of content available on YouTube, a lot of people – whatever their religion – wouldn’t know where to start looking for inspiring, uplifting, soul-stirring, life-changing, motivating songs that can support their own personal journey to reconnection and wholeness.
That’s why I was inspired to write ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I’m a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s book Sing You Home, which has a downloadable soundtrack. I LOVE those songs, especially ‘Ordinary Life’ – a cry from the heart for LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination – and the title track, a haunting song dedicated to a child lost through miscarriage. So, inspired by this, I decided to go a step further and write a novel in which the song lyrics are actually woven into the text and form an integral part of the plot.
‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’ is a story of transformation and healing through song, and I’m starting to explore ways of recording the 19 songs – which include, among many others, The Song of the Sacred Land, The Song of the Wilderness Wanderer, The Song of the Pilgrims, The Song of the Midwife, and The Song of the Artist – with a Celtic harp and chorus.
I’ve already posted some excerpts, but will be adding more in future. And please keep watching this space for more details of my Transformational Song Healing workshops, and the role of song in the Travelling Light program…
So what do I mean by `Reunion’ in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion?
On one level, it’s about trying to help people to bring together the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine within themselves. This, according to the early Gnostic Christians – those who saw Jesus’ message as being primarily about an inner ‘knowing’ (gnosis), about who we can become when we really get beyond all artificial divisions and realise that All is One – is the true goal of life.
But in another, it’s about trying to bridge the gap between Christianity and earth-based spiritual paths. We’ve come through so many centuries of separation – of denigration of Mother Earth and glorification of the Heavenly Father, of genocide perpetrated against women who knew about medicinal plants and sacred landscapes, of entire economies and cultures driven by masculine energy – that most people in Western societies are growing up in a completely unbalanced way. We think ‘religion’ means sitting in the church, the mosque, the temple or the synagogue, and listening to someone preaching. We think ‘nature’ is somewhere to go in the summer holidays, and ‘the environment’ is what you save when you put your empty plastic bottle in the recycling bag instead of the bin.
We imagine that we’re all separate from each other, from the Land, and from the Spirit that created and creates us.
So here, in response, are the full lyrics of The Song of the Maiden:
“After the coldest, darkest night, come melt the frost and ice and snow:
Now is the time to reunite what was divided long ago:
After the time of pain and grief, when Earth and Sky were torn apart,
Now is the time to bring relief: O Saviour, heal this Maiden’s heart!
(Chorus:) Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me the power of this land where I belong;
Heal my soul, let your Love find me, and open up my ears to hear your song;
Heal my dreams, let me heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal the earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free:
Thawing my heart from winter’s frost, you lit your Sacred Flame in me!
This is the season of rebirth: let’s leave behind the empty tomb,
Pushing their way through frozen earth, my hopes and dreams like snowdrops bloom.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Deep in my heart let me forgive, and seek the way where Love will rise;
Learn to receive, and learn to give, and see the truth through Spirit’s eyes:
Honour the Sacred Masculine – the Father, Spirit, and the Son;
Honour the Sacred Feminine, Goddess and God; for All is One.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Warrior Maidens who remain, remembering the sacred vow,
Come and let’s take our place again, emerging from the shadows now;
No longer living in disguise, no longer hiding, playing small…
The time has come for us to rise; the time has come to change it all!
Heal our hearts, Saviour, remind us the power of this land where we belong;
Heal our souls, let your Love find us, and open up our ears to hear your song;
Heal our dreams, let us heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal our earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Since my last visit to Tanzania, in December 2016, I’ve become a regular and passionate attendee of my local Baptist church.
That shocks some people, including my older daughter who’s very politically aware, because of what `the Christian Church’ has done in Africa and what it’s doing right now in the USA – all the racism and homophobia and sexism that’s somehow being sold to people as having something to do with Jesus. But I think Jesus would be appalled by the misuse of his name, because he was a genuine revolutionary. He was someone who touched lepers and invited prostitutes to his house for dinner, and then went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the people who were making money off the backs of the poor, and criticised them in the strongest terms possible, and that’s why the religious leaders of the day insisted that he had to be crucified – because he was a threat to their power.
And whatever you think of the Resurrection of Christ, whether you see it as a physical resurrection in the body – and I believe there’s a lot about the human body that scientists are still trying to get their heads around, this whole emerging belief that in the end we’re all just energy, and we still don’t know what we don’t know – or as a phenomenon that occurred in the disciples’ consciousness, a sort of collective shamanic experience, I think what matters most is the message behind it. It’s an overwhelming message of “the truth of Love transcending death”, as I express it in The Song of the Lovers.
It’s not just Love transcending death in a physical sense that matters, but also – in fact, all the more – in a spiritual sense. It’s about the ability of Love to break through depression, anxiety, apathy, overwork, overwhelm, addictions, and that awful sense of emptiness that symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s the idea that individually and collectively, we can come through even the most horrific of circumstances and be reborn: we can make a fresh start at any moment, full of hope and passion and joy. It’s that sense of “Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free” that bubbles up in the second verse of the Song of the Maiden.
The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.
Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK; and why, this year, I felt I had to write a historical novel called ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable. There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).
And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.
A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true. He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment. He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being. And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.
Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person. Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual. Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside. But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.
So what I wanted to do with ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, and more broadly with the whole Songs of Reunion trilogy, is to show that a living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’. I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality. People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own. We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.
There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa. The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on. That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.
And the second was rediscovering Christianity, which I will talk about tomorrow.
When I first had the idea of writing a book, the obvious thing was to assume that it would be a memoir of my time in Africa.
This is the book I nearly wrote:
I started from the beginning, as most people would – my very first trip to Tanzania in 1999. I got so caught up in writing about the first man I ever loved that I found I had reached my 50,000-word goal – it was a National Novel Writers’ Month 50k challenge – and barely even mentioned Lesikar, let alone the projects that we did together. In trying to write memoirs, I found myself focusing on the parts that were easier to write, either by virtue of being further back in the past, or because the story was just more straightforward when I was only 21 and had no dependents.
But in trying to write memoir, either about my relationship with Lesikar or my earlier relationship, I was so upset about the level of racism in the world already that I felt I couldn’t say anything even remotely negative about any individual who’s ethnically African and living in Africa, in case it fuelled people’s stereotypes. There’s that whole ‘it’ll never last’ mindset: the idea that Africans and Europeans are fundamentally so different that they can never have a successful marriage, which is utterly ridiculous. Some of the comments on the YouTube video were just disgusting, and it was a huge wake-up call to realise that even now, in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still people for whom the colour of someone’s skin is such a big deal that they think a black man who marries a white woman doesn’t deserve to live. Duh.
I was in a position where I didn’t want to say anything at all about Maasai individuals or the Maasai culture that wasn’t 100% positive, and of course nobody and nothing in the world is 100% positive, and we’re always projecting our own issues and insecurities on to other people anyway. I think that’s the reason why, when I first started trying to write memoirs in 2006, I wasn’t succcessful in finding a publisher: there was just too much sunshine and roses, or rather sunshine and red hibiscus, to be interesting or convincing. So, having successfully created this 50,000-word memoir, I decided not to publish it.
My new book, ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, has given me a safe space for me to work through some of the emotions that I’m still processing, but to do it in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one individual or on the Maasai as a society. All the characters are fictional, although obviously they have to be based on something and come from somewhere. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that Lesikar `is’ one of the three male leads in the story, or that any episode in the book is an actual replica of something that happened in my life. It isn’t that at all. But there were certainly aspects of the story that mirror some of the emotions that I went through in Tanzania – not just with Lesikar and with my first boyfriend, but in other situations as well, all sorts of different interactions with people. So one thing that really did exist in a variety of situations was the challenge of trying to work out who people really are, how much is their true face and how much is the mask – the image that they present to the world. And, on the other side of it, whether they really saw and loved me for who I was, or if it was more of a transaction – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that’.
So, if not Africa, why 672 AD? Why not modern times?
There’s the superficial level, of course, which is that I know far more about what it actually feels like to live in a mud hut than most people who might decide to write a novel set in the Anglo-Saxon era (or the Early Medieval period, as it’s become known in relation to Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, which were all separate countries with a similar culture). That’s true enough: but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Setting my novel in a familiar place and an unfamiliar time has actually been enormously healing for me. It gives me the chance to imagine a setting in which I could be all of myself. It allows me to envisage a way of living what might be termed a ‘Maasai-style’ life (based on a strong sense of community, a deep connection to the land and to Spirit, freedom from the stress and overwhelm of modern Western society, and the opportunity to be creative) but doing that within the sacred landscapes of the UK, places that I’ve come to know and love all over again since I came back from Tanzania. And I’m hoping that this is something I’ll be able to share with my readers, and maybe inspire them to make some changes in the way they live their lives: to start reconnecting with some of those things for themselves, and discovering a healthier and happier way of being. Not that I’m trying to suggest that Maasailand is a utopia; but there’s a lot we can learn.
I have a deeper ‘why’, too. But that will have to be another blog post for another day. Work is beckoning…
People have a way of reducing everything to girl-meets-boy, girl-loves-boy, girl-leaves-boy. I suppose, in a documentary, it has to be edited that way; that’s what attracts viewers. But many viewers did appreciate, based on some of the lovely comments that I’ve received, that my story was a lot richer and more complicated than that.
In the Maasai culture, there’s no such thing as ‘romance’ in the Western sense. People might hook up, they might have a lot of casual relationships in their teens, but marriage is this whole socially negotiated thing that’s on a spectrum from ‘well, I think it might be a good idea if you married this person’, all the way through to forced marriage of 13-year-olds to violent, drunken abusers who have four wives already. And I came into that and challenged people to rethink it, and ask whether an outsider could ever be allowed in, but it was still an alliance that was good for both sides. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a marriage of convenience – the love was real – but it was certainly convenient for me, convenient for Lesikar, and convenient for the village. The elders, especially Lesikar’s father, saw that, and that’s why they gave him their permission to do something so unorthodox.
It was convenient for me, because first and foremost I had fallen in love with Tanzania, and in love with the version of myself that I could be in Tanzania, which was someone I couldn’t be in England. Being Lesikar’s wife gave me indefinite leave to remain, although I wasn’t allowed to work for pay until I became an employee in Lesikar’s company. There was a lot of arrogance there, thinking I could be the one to make a massive difference and change thousands of lives, but anyone from the Western world who’s ever lived in Africa for more than a couple of months will understand that ego trip that you get from being able to save someone’s life with medicine that costs a few dollars, or give a family hope because their child gets to go to school and suddenly they imagine this whole new world of opportunity opening up. If you’re someone who’s motivated by the idea of changing people’s lives, and you go to Africa, you suddenly feel as though you can make the kind of difference in ten minutes that would take a lifetime in the West.
There’s that whole aspect of white privilege, and I never realised this in the late Nineties and early Noughties – I was a lot less radical, a lot less politically aware then than I am now – but in Tanzania at that time, people thought that you could do pretty much anything if you were white. There was a lot of unearned trust, based on assumptions that I knew exactly what I was doing because I had an Oxford degree. Although my Oxford degree was in biochemistry and I was trying to start a business and didn’t know the first thing about business, even the difference between cashflow and profit, people still took me seriously. So as a 21-year-old who would have had to start at the bottom of the ladder in the UK, all of a sudden I was starting my own NGO and my own company and people were listening to every word I was saying, as if I were some kind of world authority on international development. So that’s another type of ego trip.
Then, on an even more selfish level, there’s the feeling of being brought alive by the colours and the sunshine and the quality of the light, and the warmth, not just the weather but the warmth of the community that’s always there to support you, although that can have its down-side too. (There were some times when, as someone who’s actually pretty introverted, I just craved a bit of peace and quiet; I really didn’t want fifteen people asking why I was so quiet that day, and what the problem was!) There’s the fact that you can just go out, at any time of the day, and walk in breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, or if you’re in the village where Lesikar grew up, you’re just immersed in all that beauty the whole time. There’s no ‘going out for a walk’ because everything you do is outdoors, or rather the door is always open and people are always drifting in and out, unless everyone has gone to bed: there’s no firm boundary between indoor and outdoor space.
So it was convenient for me in a lot of ways to marry Lesikar, and it was convenient for him because it enabled him to gain visibility and prestige and advance his political career. In just the same way as you have this automatic assumption of high social status for being white, you get it for being married into the European culture and speaking English and having travelled overseas.
It was convenient for the village too, at least on the face of it, because they suddenly had access to this whole new world of tourist dollars and Western-style education that hadn’t been there before. It really bothered me, by the time I was at the point of coming back. I felt as if I’d done something terrible, changed their way of life forever in a way that wasn’t necessarily helpful, and so there was a lot of guilt mixed up with all the other emotions and I realised that actually everything that you do as a white person living in an indigenous African community has both positive and negative consequences. That you can’t change individual lives without, at the same time, making it more likely that those individuals will move away to town and get jobs as teachers or doctors, and accelerate this whole shift in the culture that brings all sorts of other problems with it. You talk about HIV/AIDS, and people stop doing their traditional dancing, because the dance nights encourage young people to hook up and have casual sex. Or you talk about FGM, and people start mutilating babies instead of teenagers because it’s less likely to be discovered, if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on. You start a boarding school, and people move away from their grandparents and stop learning about medicinal plants. We did a lot in our very well-meaning ways that ultimately fed the forces of globalisation that are gradually destroying the Maasai culture, and that’s hard to live with.
At the same time, you could argue that Western education came to Eluwai within a couple of years anyway. We were the first, but we weren’t the last. When we opened up Noonkodin School, there was no other secondary school within four hours’ walk of the village, but by the time we left, there were two others in Eluwai itself: one run by the government, and the other by the Catholic Church. So what we were trying to do, with varying degrees of success depending on who was in charge, was a mitigation exercise. We were trying to bring schooling without bringing in all the assumptions that came with it, that Western education was all that mattered and that the Maasai indigenous knowledge was not worth knowing, and all the rest of it.
I’m not saying that we ever really achieved that, but we took some small steps towards it. There’s a generation of Maasai youth, at least in that one village, that knows their culture is valuable and that people from the West will spend their money to travel to Tanzania, not just because they want to see exotic animals but because they want to learn from the Maasai, and the reason is that the Maasai culture has something that most Western societies are missing. So that helps to offset some of the guilt… until the anthropologist in me pops up and starts talking about cultural appropriation. Sigh…
It’s been an interesting three weeks. I don’t know whose idea it was to release the 13-year-old documentary “Cutting Edge: It’ll Never Last” on YouTube, or why they decided to do it now. My first response was anger that I hadn’t been asked if I was OK with that, or at least given some warning that it was going to happen. The first I heard of it was a phone call from my 14-year-old daughter to say that I was on YouTube and had over a quarter of a million views. There was a part of me that hoped to make it to a million (it’s currently at 810,000), and another part that just wished it would all go away.
For the first two years after I came back to the UK with my daughters, I was still getting over the culture shock: coping with ordinary things like what to eat for breakfast when the supermarket has over fifty different types of cereal, and every single one of them has more sugar in a bowlful than an entire Maasai family would eat in a day. (That doesn’t include the times when someone comes to visit and brings a bag of sugar as a gift, and everyone adds at least four teaspoons to their tea). Things like what to do with my rage that people were spending money on apple-corers, and lemon-squeezers, and cucumber-spiralizers, and little magnetic tongs to remove the toast from the toaster, when on the other side of the world that £3.50 could make the difference between someone living and dying. Things like the fact that I couldn’t get a Tanga mango for love or money, and nobody here would know what I meant by a Tanga mango. You can’t even Google it.
After the culture shock phase had passed, I slipped into thinking that `moving on’ meant pretending that Tanzania never existed, or at least that I was never there. I left my parents’ home after a few years and made a completely fresh start in a village where I knew nobody, and nobody knew me. I didn’t do the school run because I still wasn’t driving, so the County Council had to organise a taxi to take my daughter to school, as they weren’t able to find her a place within walking distance. But the few other mums that I met through birthday parties and play dates had no idea at all that I was the former ‘Mrs Maasai’, and nor did most of my work colleagues at the University of Brighton. If anyone did recognise me and ask about Lesikar or Tanzania, I would quickly change the subject.
It’s only in the past year that I’ve actually started trying to make sense of it all. In a drumming journey that I did – I don’t particularly like the word ‘shamanic’, but I haven’t got a better one – I had a vision of a red squirrel, telling me I had to dig up what I buried. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, and it really has been hugely transformative. It’s like coming out of prison, reclaiming all these parts of myself that were lost, like the storytelling and the songs. I’ll be blogging about my new novel very soon.
And I think it’s no coincidence, in a spiritual sense, that the video has been re-released now. It’s challenging me to accept everything on a much deeper level, to really own the fact that yes, I was Mrs Maasai, and whether I like it or not, over three-quarters of a million people – most of whom wouldn’t have seen the original documentary – now know me as Mrs Maasai. I’ve had all these lovely messages of support and congratulation, telling me how gorgeous my husband is and what fantastic work I’m doing, and sometimes it’s made me feel a bit of a fraud because I’m not in that place any more. But then I just keep reminding myself that the work I’m doing now is equally valid, and equally important, in a different way; and that I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now, if I hadn’t been through that whole experience in Tanzania. Keep watching this space to find out more about it.
I’ve had so many e-mails and so many Facebook messages that I can’t answer them all, and that makes me feel weird, as if I’m in debt to these people I don’t even know. There’s no reason at all why I should feel obliged to give away any personal information about my family, but there’s still a part of me that feels people who have taken the time to write to me – motivated by genuine interest and healthy curiosity – deserve some answers.
So yes, Lesikar has moved on and had more children, although he hasn’t quite equalled his father’s record yet.
Yes, I have two daughters – strong, gorgeous, amazing young people, who are growing up in the UK but still visit their family in Tanzania whenever we can afford to.
No, they have not had FGM, nor was there every any suggestion that they might – Lesikar was just as passionately opposed to it as I was.
No, they don’t want me to post their pictures or any details about their lives.
No, they haven’t watched the video: I gave them the choice, but they said it would make them feel weird. And no, I haven’t watched it again, either. I’m working my way up to it, though. I will probably get around to it soon.
Yes, I am writing a book, but it’s a novel, not a memoir. Watch this space!
Yes, the school project is still running, although the campaign against FGM has fundamentally changed since the government started taking a heavy-handed approach and arresting anyone suspected of being involved in it. (Just as in Kenya, the result has been to drive it underground and widen the divide between the communities and the authorities, and to encourage people to practice it as a ‘rite of defiance’ as I wrote in a 2003 article. The same thing is happening in the UK and it’s a real tragedy.)
No, I didn’t spend a thousand pounds a year on sunscreen, because contrary to what the video suggested, I didn’t spend all my time doing chores out in the hot sun. That was posed. Nor did I live in a mud hut. I was the director of a successful NGO and a cultural safari company, and had a four-bedroom brick house in the city.
Yes, there are lots of things I miss about Tanzania, and lots of things I don’t miss, like malaria, giant cockroaches, dust, water shortages and daily power cuts.
No, I haven’t married anyone else. And no, I’m not looking for a new partner.
Yes, I’m happy, enjoying life, glad that I went to Africa, and glad that I came back.
Yes, I’m still doing work that I love, that sets my soul alight.
Thank you to everyone who called me inspiring. But everyone’s story is inspiring, in their own way. You don’t have to go to Africa and marry a Maasai to be an inspiration to people. But if you want to, don’t let anyone stop you.
No, I don’t regret it. Not even for a minute.