The other type of courage

Since I’ve been `outed’ online, not through choice, as That Woman who Married the Maasai Warrior, I’ve had all sorts of people getting in touch to tell me they’d love to go to Africa (or some other far-away place) but don’t know how they’ll ever find the courage.


Reflecting on what made me brave enough to go to Tanzania in my early twenties, and why it’s so much harder to get brave enough to do anything outside my comfort zone now that I’m coming up to my fortieth birthday, what I’ve realised is that there are two different kinds of courage.

There’s what I call illusion-based courage, or `gap year’ courage.  Lots of people will know what I mean by that.  It’s a naïve kind of bravery, the kind you have when you’re looking out from a rose-coloured bubble of privilege and idealism.  When I first left Oxford, I did stuff just because I could, and didn’t overthink it.  Why shouldn’t I get out there and change the world?   Why shouldn’t I start a company and an NGO from scratch, build a school, save girls from FGM, marry my colleague, have kids, and take them to the Maasai village to visit their grandparents?  What could possibly go wrong?

I was in love.  Passionately.  Not just with Lesikar, but with Tanzania: the music, the colours, the stories, the wisdom, the land, the sky, the wildlife, the fruit, the flowers, the sense of community, the deep faith and trust, the fact that everyone talks about God and spirituality as if they’re completely taken for granted.

The flip side was always there, of course, but I wasn’t seeing it.  Well, they say love is blind.  If I felt any fear at all, which I don’t remember, it was overridden by a massive burst of endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and all that other feel-good stuff that happens when you’re in love.

And then, of course, things started to go wrong.  Sometimes a little bit wrong, like a bout of malaria that was quickly treated with medication and everything was fine again…until the next time.  Sometimes horribly wrong.

And then it got to a point where I realised that actually, it wasn’t all going to be fine, and prayer wasn’t going to magically make everything happen the way that I wished it would, and maybe I couldn’t manifest things just by dreaming them after all.

That’s when I needed the second type of courage.

The second type of courage, which I call disillusioned courage, is what you need in order to survive after the dream dies and the rosy bubble bursts…

It isn’t all sunshine and serotonin any more.  On a good day, it feels like two steps forward and one back.  On a bad day, it’s one forward and three back, and you wonder if you’ll ever figure it out.

Finding the courage to move to another country, or start a business, or whatever that big scary goal might be, is very different if you’re not under 22 and over-privileged.  It’s very different if you’ve already lived life, struggled, loved, lost your illusions, and been deeply hurt.  If you’ve been bereaved or traumatised, or suffered a serious illness.  If you’ve been in the same job for twenty years.

 So if that’s you, all I can say is please, please stop beating yourself up over the fact that you’re not already Doing The Thing.

Start celebrating the fact that you were brave enough to acknowledge that you’re afraid of it.  A lot of people go through their lives making all sorts of excuses as to why they haven’t Done The Thing, but never get around to admitting that actually it’s scaring the shit out of them.

Then take that first tiny step.  Send that e-mail or text, or make that phone call, or comment on this blog, or click a link, or invite a Facebook friend to meet up for a coffee… and celebrate that. Because these are the places where true, disillusioned courage begins.

It doesn’t begin when you step on the plane.


4 thoughts on “The other type of courage

  1. wolkenbeobachterin says:

    Thank you for this interesting article. My thoughts towards the topic (after some experience):
    I agree with you about the different kinds of courage. I was about to say, that the first one is one of the twenty-year-olds, but its not true. It’s not dependent on age. I think, if you don’t overthink and overthink a situation, idea or possible problems you might have after making a decision to live somewhere else, to work somewhere else e.g. , than you are couraged in the first way. There is a lot of inner courage and joy to start something new, combined with decisiveness and energy/drive. The 2nd kind of courage is, as you said, after some desillusion and overthinking. The energy/drive is as high and strong like the first one, after making the decision to do it, to start a new life, relationship, job a.s.o. One addition: The kind of courage someone takes, sometimes also depends on what one has to leave behind.
    Have a nice day. I am looking forward to further articles around and about this topic.
    Best regards from Germany, Wolkenbeobachterin

  2. Jenn says:

    Thank you so much, Gemma, for listening to your newly rapt audience and creating this blog series. 🙂 I, too watched the video of you and felt and wondered many things in watching. Amazing to me how in this day and age I just looked you up on Facebook and now can follow the Real Human Being in the video from years ago..

    It’s nice to hear your story and how you are doing now. I appreciate your perspective on the two courages and it helps me understand why I, too, acted more bravely at 21 than I do now.

    I see myself in your story and I appreciate learning from it. I see myself in your decisions and feel that given the right circumstances, I too might have made similar choices. I always loved Africa and visited in my early twenties. I’m sure if I met the ‘right person’ I might have made those same choices and married them, despite any vast cultural divides..

    Anyway, I appreciate your graceful maneuvering with your newfound (or re-opened?) fame and how you are beginning to share openly about your experience.

    Mostly, I appreciate this post, as it helps me to be told that courage in my thirties, *after* heartache, *after* failure and disappointment, *after* attempting life and being totally beat down by it, is a new kind of courage. The courage to open the heart even when it has been broken… More than once. The courage to try a new career direction when none prior have worked.. the courage to believe that I am not ‘washed out’ yet and it is still possible to believe in myself and move in the direction of a fulfilling life.

    I never thought my life would look how it does now. It is in some ways more fulfilling and rich than I ever knew would be possible, and in other ways the wreckage is messier and uglier than I ever wanted for myself..

    So thank you for opening up. I needed to hear this message and am excited to ‘follow you’ in your next messages. I love that your expression feels genuine… so rare these days when I feel as if *every message* coming towards me these days is heavily funneled into profit-making despite often lacking any genuine intrinsic value to our human spirit. So thank you for offering up your honest, thoughtful experience for your readers — a thoughtfulness full of intrinsic value.

    I wish you the best in this stage of your journey and will look forward to reading on…

    • gemmaburford says:

      Thanks for these lovely comments, Jenn. I’m so happy that you’re finding the blog helpful, and I hope you continue to enjoy the Wednesday posts. I can totally relate to the paragraph that begins ‘I never thought my life would look how it does now’. That’s exactly where I am.

      Out of all the negative reactions that I’ve had on YouTube, and occasionally on Facebook and in my e-mail, the only one that has actually got to me is the one that says ‘Gemma has no idea where she is or what she’s doing. She is everywhere and nowhere’. To that I responded, in a knee-jerk, ‘Excuse me? I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing, thank you very much,’ and got the reply, ‘No, you are a hot mess.’ And the reason that it got to me so much is that there’s a part of me that truly believes, deep down, that I am a mess. And yet there’s another part that, at exactly the same time, is still capable of believing that I am a powerful creatress / creatrix, that my art and my book and my experiences can be a light for people who are going through similar things. Maybe not similar in the sense of having married a Maasai warrior, but in the sense of having been full of big, beautiful dreams and then finding that everything, absolutely everything, has to be renegotiated.

      I have spent so much of my life trying to act the part and say all the right lines at the right times – whether as an Oxford student, a Maasai mama, a Baha’i, an evangelical Christian, or whatever – that I have come to the point where being inauthentic just won’t work for me any more. It comes right back to my song, ‘Do it for love or not at all.’ I sing because I simply can’t live a life that doesn’t include song; but I’m still searching for my song circle, my Fellowship, my group of soul siblings who are ready to start singing a new world into being. And yes, there’s all sorts of stuff that I haven’t shared yet, and I’m trying to figure out when is the right time to share it – if at all. Issues that have been huge for me, that would make some people love my blog all the more, and might even be a lifeline to people who are wobbling on the same edges that I’ve walked along, but would make other people hate me with a passion. I start to hint at it in some of the upcoming posts, which I’ve already written, but I’m not quite ready for full disclosure.

      I’m glad you raise the issue of profit-making. I have struggled with this for two decades – in Tanzania I always refused to take any payment for any of the NGO work, because it just felt wrong at the time. We were reliant on what we could bring in from the safari company, and ultimately, even a lot of the profit from the safaris ended up being handed back to the communities, and that led, in the end, to the collapse of the company, which was a huge factor in my decision to come back to the UK. I have been doing a lot of work around ‘owning my worth’ and gradually coming around to the idea that it isn’t wrong to offer paid programs as a way of respecting my own time and energy, and on the basis that if I value it myself, other people will value it too. The truth is that if you don’t fill your own well you can’t give to others, and if I am always scraping around for money to feed my family I’ll never be able to make the difference that I still dream of making in Tanzania and other places. So I am trying to find that balance – communicating what I can offer in terms of paid programs, and figuring out how to market them and price them in a way that people who genuinely want my help and advice will be able to engage with it in a way that’s empowering for both sides, without turning into one of those too-good-to-be-true internet entrepreneurs who drive everyone crazy with their sales pitch and empty promises. In any case I am not going to stop posting free, straight-from-the-heart, non-sales-oriented content on my blog, and even giving away song lyrics and quotes from the book every so often 🙂 ❤

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