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. I’d signed the release form, of course, back in 2004, but it had never occurred to me that it would pop up again after so many years. My first response was anger that I hadn’t been given any 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 a quarter of a million views. There was a part of me that hoped to make it to a million (2018 update: it’s now well over two million) 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. 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.
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. 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.
No, I’m not going to tell you the details of why Lesikar and I broke up. It was complicated, as the break-up of relationships between human beings always is. But it was amicable; in brief, it was about realising that the shared vision we’d had in the beginning wasn’t working out for us any more, and we both had different priorities in life in 2010 compared to where we were in 2003. It had a lot to do with religion and politics: it wasn’t a case of throwing spears at each other because he’d decided to marry a second wife or started threatening the kids with FGM. Sorry to disappoint you, thrill-seekers: we had no courtroom dramas, no midnight escapes, no death threats, no ransom notes, and no `her-or-me’ confrontations.
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, and don’t intend to. I saw it when it came out on TV, and that was enough.
No, I am not planning on writing an autobiography any time soon.
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 full-time in a mud hut. I was the director of a successful NGO and a cultural safari company, and we had a four-bedroom brick house in the city, although we did visit the village regularly and enjoyed spending time with the extended family. Sometimes you have to take what you see in the media with a large pinch of salt!
Yes, there are lots of things I miss about Tanzania, like the colour, the light, the landscapes, the wisdom of the elders and the sense of true community, 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 another husband, so please, random guys I’ve never met, enough already with the message requests on Facebook proposing marriage. I know the video makes it look as if I met Lesikar and instantly fell in love and married him, but we were actually friends and colleagues for two years before we even got engaged. Just like regular human beings, eh? Fancy that! Oh, wait. We ARE regular human beings. We have different skin colours, different cultures, and different backgrounds. Big deal. We worked together.
Yes, I’m happy, enjoying life, glad that I went to Tanzania, and glad that I came back.
Yes, I’m still doing work that I love, that sets my soul alight…but I’m no longer maintaining this blog or using this website as my business portal. It was just getting too complicated, trying to separate out the prospective clients from the haters. If you really need the consultancy and coaching services that I’m offering now, you’ll find me anyway, through a different route. But I very much doubt that people who know me from the YouTube video will be in my target market for the work I’m doing now.
No, I don’t regret it. Not even for a minute.
2018 update: I have turned off comments for this post because I’m tired of getting hate mail from people who know nothing about me, apart from a media image that’s been carefully constructed to highlight the differences between my ex-husband and me and to play down the many, many similarities and areas of common ground. Whenever I see ‘Please moderate ‘Life after Mrs Maasai’ in my inbox, my heart sinks because I never know if I’m going to find someone calling me an inspiration, or an alt-right fascist hurling insults at me. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is not to waste any more time trying to answer, or argue with, critics who don’t know what they’re talking about.
To all those who have sent me lovely positive messages, thank you so much, I’ve really appreciated them. It’s been so great to know that there are people who found the story of Mrs Maasai inspiring. To those in intercultural relationships: I wish you the very best of luck. And to those for whom it ‘didn’t last’, please don’t think of yourselves as failures. It was part of the journey for you, part of the learning process, just as it was for me. You’re moving on to somewhere else, and that’s okay.
It’s our differences that make our world so beautiful. But at the same time… we have more in common than we ever imagined.