Fairy-tale romance, marriage of convenience, or ego-trip? The other side(s) of the story

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…




16 thoughts on “Fairy-tale romance, marriage of convenience, or ego-trip? The other side(s) of the story

  1. thebrexitdiet says:

    This is great. You see where you went wrong but you’re talking about it in an enlightened and empathetic way.

    I am sceptical of western intervention in Africa too; I’m suspicious of people pushing western contraception methods on third world women especially, not enough is done to make them understand what is happening and the risks to their health. I wonder if it is more about population control rather than a desire to help women. Civilisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks. That is so true bout western contraception methods, I do think there is a political agenda behind it, and of course profits for the pharmaceutical industry too.

  2. sarah says:

    such a pleasure to read your posts. intelligent freethinking reflective. we all try to help but don’t really know what is best. i think there is something so beneficial in having links with people who are different to us, who we can learn from and it needs to be a two-way process.

  3. Kirsten Nardini says:

    I find your story and life fascinating! I wonder, do you make any trips to the United States? It would be great to share your life experiences with Higher Education. You can email me!!

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks Jane, God bless you too! I don’t like the word ‘primitive’ but I understand where you’re coming from. It can be hard sometimes to give up our Western comforts and luxuries, but there’s a lot of beauty and joy in the Maasai lifestyle too, and very little depression or anxiety – despite the seemingly harsh conditions! Let me know if you would like to be subscribed to my newsletter.

      • Jane oddo says:

        I shouldn’t have said primitive. It was just my love of conveniences taking over my brain. I’m 75 and not well and having all things working in my house is great. I’m happy that you went home.

        I’ve traveled overseas too, and I was very disappointed in the man I met. I was almost afraid of him. I had to lie to him to get out of that country. The country was wonderful though. What a trip!

  4. Michelle Campbell says:

    Your reflections are so valuable, thank you for sharing them. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  5. Errol says:

    U know Gem… i think u meant well … u really went in it for love…and though u both moved on ,,,, its not a total lost.. I too married an migrated and then later regretted it…. not because I didn’t truly love the woman and the place… I just didn’t realized before how much I had loved my country and customs so much that it took a toll on me living else where.. So after a couple years I moved back home and founded peace and lots of experiences to share…. Both of u had ground and now like me , we all have wonderful stories tell, and lots experiences to share that might not have been possible if we didn’t followed our dreams and hearts… That’s true love….

    Some loner once said: ” Its better to have been love and lost, than to have never loved at all”

    Ps: If u think broken heart is bad, then try the lack of experience…

  6. Errol says:

    Ps love ur family and the support they give, Please don’t let no one spoil ur day. its was the best novel I’ve seen , since prince Charles and Lady Dies…Guest we could say madern day Romeo and Juliet… and the best art is the done die

    Please consider a book and or the movie deal, why mot is ur story

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks for your support! If you look at other posts on my blog (including the recent ‘Emotional fact and historical fiction’ you’ll see that I am, indeed, writing a book, and I certainly wouldn’t say no to a movie deal if someone offered me one! I am editing the second draft of my novel at the moment and will be publishing it soon – if I can get an agent and a traditional publishing deal that would be fabulous – if not then I will just self-publish. I want to get my story out there one way or another! That book is set in Anglo-Saxon Britain but it is grounded in real emotions. Also, a heads-up prior to my newsletter getting finished, I am also going to be announcing some live events in the UK very soon where I will be sharing my actual true stories of life in Tanzania, as well as reading my poetry. These will be recorded and the videos and content will be available to subscribers. Watch this space…

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