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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117 thoughts on “Life after ‘Mrs Maasai’: some answers for the curious

  1. haydee gonzalez says:

    I have enjoyed your story and journey, you have the gift that keeps giving and giving because it is genuine and comes from a deep well. Thank you for sharing your journey, courage, and all your future endeavors as it will surely grace many lives!

    Countless blessings to you and family

  2. Emil says:

    Hi Gemma Burford.
    You are one wanderful person and this post:Life after ‘Mrs Maasai’: some answers for the curious, is such a selfless and measured response, full of dignity, that shows your integrity as a human being. I wish you, and your family all the best in life.
    Kind regards,
    Emil

  3. Lyneil Vandermolen says:

    I don’t understand how western women are so eager to dump their entire heritage for an existence in some third world backwater. Look at Obama’s mother. Don’t they value their own heritage? It’s the kids who always suffer the cultural confusion their parents subject them to.

    • gemmaburford says:

      I’d have to disagree with you there, Lynell. Having mixed-ethnicity heritage can be incredibly empowering for kids. It opens them up to a whole lot of new possibilities, and new ways of being human. It encourages them to question, to think things through for themselves instead of just blindly following what they see other people around them doing, to be creative, to take calculated risks, and to dare. I’ve had a lot of similar comments to yours – most of them worded MUCH less politely – which I didn’t share on my blog because I didn’t want to promote filthy racist language. I’ve been told that I’m betraying my heritage (I had to giggle at the one who spelt it ‘hermitage’!) and that my parents must be ashamed of me. Well, they’re not. I’m incredibly proud of my gorgeous, intelligent daughters with their half-British, half-Maasai heritage. And I’m not sure where you’re coming from with the point about Barack Obama’s mother, but she must be SO proud of him and everything that he’s achieved, if she’s still alive!

      • Beverly says:

        Gemma, so sorry to hear the idiot racists are on the loose. It must be very difficult to deal with that kind of unbridled ignorance and cruelty even when you recognize it for the lizard brain thinking it exemplifies. If you follow US news at all you know we certainly have them coming out from under rocks now that Trump is giving them his veiled permission to come forward.
        Obama’s mom died when he was an adolescent I believe. “Stanley Ann Dunham (November 29, 1942 – November 7, 1995) was an American anthropologist who specialized in the economic anthropology and rural development of Indonesia.” There is a wonderful and very telling biography of her entitled “A Singular Woman” that I am sure you would very much enjoy and find inspirational. She was a remarkable woman who obviously helped to shape a remarkable son. Maybe your daughters will be prime minister one day!

        http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/unordinary-facts-president-obamas-mother/story?id=16330771

    • Beverly says:

      Lyneil, if you think becoming the first person of color to be elected to the US Presidency twice is suffering due to his mother’s choices then you have a rather skewed idea of what accomplishment is. He was obviously a very popular President as evidenced by his approval ratings and reelection. He has a wonderful, intelligent and supportive wife and two great kids. After his mom died at an early age he lived with his white grandparents in Hawaii (which is where his parents met at university and married….but then you may consider Hawaii some backwater also.) If we can assume you are white with white parents should we assume you are suffering no cultural confusion and are therefore soon to be prime minister or possibly are a genius hard at work and about to cure cancer?

  4. Tapita Mfinanga says:

    You have been a brave brave woman. It is so obvious you were in it for true love and nothing else. I am sad it ended. Wanted this fairy tale to be forever after but oh well. I respect you even more to know that your children travel home to visit their relatives without you fearing anything orcooking up stories that they will not be safe. Wish you the very best in your future endavourd

  5. Gato says:

    Haha, I’m kinda of embarrassing ‘cos I also watched dat video out of curiosity. I was more interested in your story rather in the other two women… I can tell I do truly admire you for following your dream, embraced another culture, made it yours and then opened a new way for the tribes and the people in Europe, why not! 🙂 Such a strong woman. I’m glad you are doin’ well and that your children are happy and healthy! Keep the amazing work and hope to see more of you and your marvelous work! I think you changed the world in a way. A good way.

    Super big hugs from Mexico! 🙂

  6. BJ Hollenbeck says:

    Well done, Gemma! Thank you for the update. What an amazing life you’ve led. I do hope your book(s) comes out soon. I’m almost 60, and the things I most regret truly are the those I was too afraid to embrace and experience. Good job of living your life to the fullest. I hope your girls have your heart and spirit.

  7. Jen says:

    Hi gemma. Fascinating to see of your story in Tanzania. I’m just wondering more about what we can truly donate to or give that would make a difference the Masaai community. in this day and age, every bit of information helps, not many people are connected to the story of others. Your story was fascinating in itself, although it did not work out in the traditional Western way that everyone expects, it still serves a purpose.

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks Jen! I absolutely agree, it served many important purposes for me and for others. It certainly taught me to think beyond the traditional definition of what constitutes ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in a relationship. Our intercultural secondary school project in Eluwai village is still ongoing and educates around 200 young people, many (although not all) of them Maasai, and if you are willing to make a monthly donation to support a student it would be very much appreciated. Please visit http://www.serianuk.org.uk/?page_id=68 for more information on the project.

    • Anushka says:

      I stumbled upon this blog by accident but happy that I did! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Jen,
      I am replying to your post specifically because of the donation issue 😀. I’m glad that it would help with the education of some Masaai people but on the other hand I’m thinking that once people become too educated and world wise their culture become lost. I would hate for those tribes that still live harmoniously to loose their values, culture, freedom, themselves (!) to the Western world. Am I wrong in thinking like this? Aren’t we messed up ourselves?😁🙄 (Gemma please share your views.)

  8. Jen says:

    And also, because it happened, it’s beautiful and bittersweet in the way that it can inspire others to reach out in ways they haven’t.

  9. Melissa says:

    Courageous of you to do the documentary and for your journey as a a whole. There was no doubt the marriage wouldn’t last…because I was in your shoes once…but I chose not to be the Number 1 wife. There is still love, I’m sure, as with us…and you have your daughters. Thank you for sharing your story. May God Bless your work.

  10. Hemmingway says:

    I watched the documentary and wondered how did it go. Your response to my curiosity was very clear. Thank you for being so vulnerable and open. God bless you and your girls. I really do admire you.
    N. Hemmingway

  11. kelsey says:

    Hi Gemma,

    I’m so glad I found this because I was very much curious about where you are now. Your story was wonderful and i find you to be one of the few people who actually live by the saying “follow you dreams”. You are very brave. There is still one unanswered question that I am curious about. Obviously you shouldn’t feel obligated to answer because it is quite personal. In the end, what was it that drove you and Lesikar apart? Did he end up taking a second wife while you were still with him and that ended up being more difficult than you anticipated or perhaps did you simply miss home? Again, thanks for sharing, it was a very fascinating and inspirational story to say the least. I wish you and your daughters all the best. With love from Hawaii!

  12. Tee says:

    I’m sending this message from Bermuda. I’ve seen the documentary for the second time I watched it years ago and just recently watched it again.. I think your entire journey is fantastic! You lived life and gained two beautiful children.. you lived outside the box that society placed in front of you. I’m inspired thank you for sharing your family

  13. Stephanie says:

    Hi, Gemma i am a Maasai from Kenya. i am inspired by your story. Thanks for sharing.
    i am grateful that you are now contributing to the community, since you know the challenges they are going through. I appreciate you so much

  14. Patrick Banks says:

    Hi Gemma,

    I really enjoyed the video and your and Lesikar’s journey together.

    I don’t know what caused you to leave the marriage and Lesikar and I’m only asking because one of the important parts of your journey was cultural as well as personal between you, Lesikar, his family and yours.

    Would you be willing to describe a bit of how your relationship with each other and with each other’s cultures was a part of your separating?

    I mean no offense but really felt your story deeply and was wondering what went into your and Lesikar’s decision to go your separate ways while still maintaining and nurturing the important elements of your life together, not only limited to your wonderful and obviously (based on who you and Lesikar were in the video) well-loved and well-raised children.

    Thanks for your response if you’re willing to make one.

    Patrick

  15. Rhea says:

    Hi Ms. Gemma. Thank you for being an inspiration! If you want to answer this, and I am really curious about this.. what is the reason why your relationship did not work? 🙂 Thank you again! More powers to you. Keep on inspiring people.

  16. Linn says:

    I love how open you were…how you saw everyone as equal, although in the end you realized that equal doesn’t mean you are not different. Is that the conclusion, we are equal but not necessarily similar? I also lived abroad for most of my adult life, although not in Africa, but in the Caribbean. When I finally moved home, I believed stronger than ever that the only way we can make a better world is to share the resources better.

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