Life after ‘Mrs Maasai’: some answers for the curious

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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.

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About gemmaburford

I've travelled to many places, tried on a lot of different professional 'hats' - researcher, designer, teacher, artist, CEO, management consultant - but the work that brings me alive is all about reconnection. Reconnecting people with each other, with nature, with their inner creativity and soul purpose, with their own bodies and what makes them well… and with the Mystery that runs through everything.

Posted on May 2, 2017, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I just ran across the YouTube video and was so intrigued by your story! I’m glad you’re doing well but I can’t help but wish the two of you stayed together lol 😉

  2. Wow… thanks for the update! I too moved far from my family to join my partner. So glad to hear such a mature view on moving on. Blessings.

  3. Also came here from the YouTube video, because I was really curious to see how things turned out. I’m glad to hear that it seems you and your daughters are doing well. All the best for you and your family.

  4. I agree with the comments above. Curiosity drove me here and its nice to understand your perspective. I am around the age you were in the video and I admire how you followed what you wanted. Regardless of how it turned out, I admire that trait I saw in the video especially from a woman like myself.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your update , and so glad the closure that you gave us.
    I live in the United States and have been married to this guy for about 5 years(I am still married to him) I have a daughter from previous marriage. We could not have children together, and he wants to go to his country and take another wife that he can have children with, I don’t think I can accept that. My daughter is 14 now, and I worried if I try to be fair and let him marry that I may be sending the wrong message to my child. I am just gonna wait until my daughter finishes her high school and leave him. Even Though it is permitted in our religion that he can marry up to 4 wives, I still think is it disgusting sharing a man with another woman. I too, will have the courage to move on.

    • It’s a challenging issue. People often have very different ideas about what marriage means! And yes, setting boundaries that protect our own self-respect and sanity is so important when it comes to bringing up daughters. For me personally, Lesikar taking another wife (which he didn’t actually do until after we had already separated) was not actually the issue – it was the fact that we had drifted further and further apart in terms of our interests and what we wanted to dedicate our lives to, to the extent that we were almost at opposite ends of the political spectrum. I guess that can happen to any couple, cross-cultural or otherwise. But I can relate to your situation and wish you all the best going it alone with your daughter 🙂

  6. Hongera Gemma. Kwa yote, kwako wewe na kwa watoto wenu, nawatakia furaha na mafanikio

  7. Also here from YouTube. Thank you for the update! I admire your courage.

  8. You haven’t been to the
    Philippines?

  9. Hello! Could you point to where can the money be guided that can make difference in people’s lives in Tanzania? I was donating to an NGO educating Somali communities and community leaders about the FGM dangers. But there must be so many more aspects and so many more beginnings that could use our support. Please do reach back and help me find a valid output! Thank you in advance!

  10. Hello! Could you point to where can the money be guided that can make difference in people’s lives in Tanzania? I was donating to an NGO educating Somali communities and community leaders about the FGM dangers. But there must be so many more aspects and so many more beginnings that could use our support. Please do reach back and help me find a valid output! Thank you in advance!

  11. Very inspiring and authentic, Gemma. As we say in our Irish indigenous tradition, Go raibh maith agat .. thank you and may may good things happen to you.

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