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…