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So you had The Dream once. And you didn’t just dream it: you lived it. Or tried your very best.
You gave it everything you had. Giving up wasn’t an option. Failure wasn’t an option. You kept going, even when it almost killed you. Even when you thought you had nothing left. You managed to find a little more, because it would all be worth it in the end.
And now you’ve got no choice but to admit it: After all that, it didn’t work out.
There’s no hope. No way to salvage that particular dream. It’s dead.
That’s what happens to Brianna, the protagonist of my emerging novel The Reluctant Flame-Keeper (formerly The Nineteen Songs of Reunion). She’s travelled with her husband Daman, a treasure-trader, all the way from Ireland to Glastonbury – a long sea voyage, followed by a nineteen-day pilgrimage across the entire country of Cymru (Wales) – to bring a lantern lit from St Brigid’s Sacred Flame to a convent in a place called Beckery. They’re supposed to receive a rapturous welcome from the nuns, and and earn the patronage of the King of Wessex.
The plan goes more disastrously wrong than Brianna could have imagined. They arrive in Beckery, only to discover there were never any nuns there in the first place. She loses both Daman and the Sacred Flame, on the same day. Then the man who shows up in the guise of a guardian angel turns out to be a violent abuser.
Brianna’s completely alone in the world. She’s in pain, bleeding, and utterly exhausted. It would be so easy to just lie there on the floor and wait for it all to end. But then she hears the voice of her pilgrimage guide, Aelfric, in a dream…
You came here as a pilgrim, with a job to do, a sacred task. It doesn’t matter whether you chose it, or it chose you: you can’t just keep hiding from it.
You have to go back to Beckery.
Brianna protests, as anyone would in her situation:
But I have no lanterns left, the Sacred Flame has been put out and Daman is gone, and even the Warrior Maiden [St Brigid] has abandoned me. I can’t do this on my own.
To that, Aelfric responds:
You have to find the Warrior Maiden in yourself. She’s there, you know. She’s always been there. You’ve just forgotten how to listen to her.
If you’ve lost all your lanterns, you’ll have to become the Sacred Flame; and if you’ve no-one there to care for you, you’ll have to become your own Flame-Keeper.
You can do this, you know you can. You’re more than strong enough. You can start taking small steps towards your own dreams, all by yourself, as soon as you make the choice.
For the sake of God and Goddess and all goodness, get up from that floor and go to Beckery!
My own first step was to get up off the sofa and quit watching soaps and reading right-wing newspapers (I know, I know… I wasn’t the one buying them, but I used to read them if they were lying around, because it was easier than actually letting myself feel anything) and find the disillusioned courage to e-mail a spiritual counsellor and ask for an appointment.
And that changed everything, as I’ll explain in my next post…
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.
So today, I’m starting a six-week series of Wednesday blog posts on the theme of courage and how to find it, even if you feel as though you’ve already lost everything. They’re leading up to the launch of my brand new e-course, Face the Fear and Chase the Dream, in September – which I’m hugely excited and also terrified about, but doing it anyway!
Here’s the first one. I hope you enjoy it…
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.
There are so many people out there trying to spread fear, hatred and division. We notice the violent ones, who make grand gestures and kill a lot of people in a short space of time, but we often don’t notice the ones who work in more subtle ways.
Much of today’s politics is based on fear. Fear of those people who don’t look like us, or that culture that doesn’t do things the way we do them, or that guy who wants to change the system, or that group that calls itself by a different name and seems to be worshipping a different kind of Divinity.
That’s because fear is a natural human emotion. It’s evolved to keep us alive, which is usually agreed to be a good thing. So it’s easy for politicians to exploit it – to appeal to our primitive survival instincts, rather than our higher consciousness that keeps trying to wake us up and tell us the truth: There is no ‘us and them’.
As I wrote in a poem when I was a teenager at the Drielandenpunt, where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet – countries that were once at war, but have now turned the site into an international peace park:
And should we speak of ‘them’ at all,
as ‘them and me’, or ‘them and us’,
or should we speak of us and us?
Why all this fuss?
A name is just a name…
And as one of my characters has explained it more recently in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion:
“Although the fluttery feelings don’t go away, they’re easier to dismiss when I’m in the middle of a story. It’s after the others have gone to bed that I feel the anxiety most, and wish hardest that I could be with Aelfric, and wonder what’s happening and whether he’s in terrible agony, or might even be dead.
But then, in an instant, I remember the great truth I learned on the night when Aelfric was attacked: that the remedy for deep fear is Deep Love. Instead of fretting, I give myself over to praying, letting myself be caught up and held and embraced by the Love that has no beginning or end – the Love beyond all names. It isn’t about my love for Aelfric any more, as a soul in a body; but love for the great Soul that rises in Aelfric and in all of us.
I sing new songs and pray new prayers that the world has never heard before, and Terithien wakes from his sleep, and stares at me with wide eyes. He shakes Orla awake and begs her to light a candle and take up her ink-pot, quill and vellum – for he can’t read or write – and capture all my words so that he might learn them by heart.”
This is my prayer for all of us affected by people’s attempts to spread terror: that we remember, as the members of the Fellowship learn to sing in `The Song of the Healer’, You are the Love beyond all names.
God, Goddess, Allah, Mungu, Engai Brahma, Jehovah: these are just our feeble human attempts at naming something which is far, far bigger and more beautiful than we can ever dream of.
Muslim, Christian, Pagan, Druid, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jew, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, spiritual wanderer, or whatever other names we might come up with: we are all seekers, chasing sparks of that Divine Love and trying to fan them into flames.
We can’t let ourselves be distracted from our quest by people who don’t understand it, and think that ‘those people’ over there are ‘the enemy’. A name is just a name…
We were all created to create something amazing.
We all have the potential to become artists, pilgrims, pioneers, visionaries, revolutionaries and world-changers. This power isn’t just in some of us: it’s a Divine gift that’s been granted to every single soul.
We all have that Light burning within us, but most of the time, we hide it. It’s too scary to shine that brightly.
Whatever it is that we’re dreaming of… we tell ourselves it’s crazy, or too weird, or too ‘out there’, or it’ll never work.
Or we kid ourselves we’re too small, too unknown, too young, too old, too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too dumb, or too unknown to make it work.
Or we insist we don’t have the right education, the right training, the right skills, the right background, the right contacts, the right car, the right shoes, or the right handbag.
What I loved about Tanzania in 1999 was that none of that stuff mattered.
I was part of a group of 19-22 year olds with a dream of building a Peace Village – a place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. We didn’t let anyone tell us we couldn’t do it. We raised money, bought a plot of land, registered our own arts and culture organisation, and started building huts.
It got burnt down, so we adjusted the dream, grew the big crazy vision even bigger and crazier, and started again.
You can’t build that there, people told us. Whatever are you thinking of? You’re insane.
It’s a barren patch of bushland. There’s no infrastructure. There’s no water. There’s no electricity.
What you’re trying to do has never been done before. There’s no path.
So we created the path by walking it.
Within five years, we had our place where young people from all over the world could come to learn about African music, culture and wellness traditions. But it wasn’t just a Peace Village. It was the beginning of a secondary school for underprivileged youth.
Those aren’t classrooms, officials told us. An octagonal timber-frame building can’t be a classroom. Classrooms are rectangular and built from concrete blocks. They measure 9 metres by 7.2 metres and have three windows.
You don’t have to demolish them. Just use them as store-rooms, or whatever. But go away and build us some classrooms.
So we did. And two staff houses, and toilet blocks, and a laboratory, and dormitories. All in accordance with the officially recognised plans.
Those aren’t students. You can’t be a student in a secondary school if you’re wearing Maasai robes. Make them all buy shirts and trousers, or skirts if they’re girls.
Ouch. That one hurt. We thought about giving up at that point. But we knew school would come to the village sooner or later. We figured it was better to have one that honoured the Maasai traditions as best it could, and showed young people the power and the beauty of indigenous knowledge by bringing Masters and PhD students from overseas to study it… and let them wear their robes on special occasions, if they wanted to. (Some of them didn’t, which was also fine…)
I won’t say it was all 100% benefit and no costs. Nothing in life ever is. But since our first graduation in 2008, more than 300 students – most of them from low-income families who’d never have been able to afford an education – have graduated from Noonkodin Secondary School with a Form 4 certificate – the equivalent of GCSE or tenth grade.
Many of them are now teachers, nurses or business owners. And one is the Headmaster.
So if you have a dream, however wild and crazy, don’t let anyone put you down. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too much, or that you’re not enough.
You are enough.
We are ALL enough.
We are big enough, smart enough, brave enough… even when we aren’t feeling it.
In this week’s blog series, I’ll be sharing my own insights about how to face your fears. I’ll introduce you to Daman, the crazy dreamer from my new novel The Nineteen Songs of Reunion, who’s all fired up about crossing the Irish Sea with a lighted lantern to win the patronage of the King… and to Brianna, the heroine of the story, whose spark becomes a flame when she falls in love with Daman and discovers new dreams of her own.
And I’ll be telling you about my new crazy dream, which you can join in- a powerful initiation for Summer Solstice, held at the ancient sacred site of Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa), to help women awaken the fearless Goddess within and start living those dreams!
So what do I mean by `Reunion’ in my forthcoming novel, The Nineteen Songs of Reunion?
On one level, it’s about trying to help people to bring together the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine within themselves. This, according to the early Gnostic Christians – those who saw Jesus’ message as being primarily about an inner ‘knowing’ (gnosis), about who we can become when we really get beyond all artificial divisions and realise that All is One – is the true goal of life.
But in another, it’s about trying to bridge the gap between Christianity and earth-based spiritual paths. We’ve come through so many centuries of separation – of denigration of Mother Earth and glorification of the Heavenly Father, of genocide perpetrated against women who knew about medicinal plants and sacred landscapes, of entire economies and cultures driven by masculine energy – that most people in Western societies are growing up in a completely unbalanced way. We think ‘religion’ means sitting in the church, the mosque, the temple or the synagogue, and listening to someone preaching. We think ‘nature’ is somewhere to go in the summer holidays, and ‘the environment’ is what you save when you put your empty plastic bottle in the recycling bag instead of the bin.
We imagine that we’re all separate from each other, from the Land, and from the Spirit that created and creates us.
So here, in response, are the full lyrics of The Song of the Maiden:
“After the coldest, darkest night, come melt the frost and ice and snow:
Now is the time to reunite what was divided long ago:
After the time of pain and grief, when Earth and Sky were torn apart,
Now is the time to bring relief: O Saviour, heal this Maiden’s heart!
(Chorus:) Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me the power of this land where I belong;
Heal my soul, let your Love find me, and open up my ears to hear your song;
Heal my dreams, let me heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal the earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free:
Thawing my heart from winter’s frost, you lit your Sacred Flame in me!
This is the season of rebirth: let’s leave behind the empty tomb,
Pushing their way through frozen earth, my hopes and dreams like snowdrops bloom.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Deep in my heart let me forgive, and seek the way where Love will rise;
Learn to receive, and learn to give, and see the truth through Spirit’s eyes:
Honour the Sacred Masculine – the Father, Spirit, and the Son;
Honour the Sacred Feminine, Goddess and God; for All is One.
Heal my heart, Saviour, remind me…
Warrior Maidens who remain, remembering the sacred vow,
Come and let’s take our place again, emerging from the shadows now;
No longer living in disguise, no longer hiding, playing small…
The time has come for us to rise; the time has come to change it all!
Heal our hearts, Saviour, remind us the power of this land where we belong;
Heal our souls, let your Love find us, and open up our ears to hear your song;
Heal our dreams, let us heal others, reconciliation cannot wait:
Heal our earth, sisters and brothers: now is the time, it isn’t yet too late…
Since my last visit to Tanzania, in December 2016, I’ve become a regular and passionate attendee of my local Baptist church.
That shocks some people, including my older daughter who’s very politically aware, because of what `the Christian Church’ has done in Africa and what it’s doing right now in the USA – all the racism and homophobia and sexism that’s somehow being sold to people as having something to do with Jesus. But I think Jesus would be appalled by the misuse of his name, because he was a genuine revolutionary. He was someone who touched lepers and invited prostitutes to his house for dinner, and then went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the people who were making money off the backs of the poor, and criticised them in the strongest terms possible, and that’s why the religious leaders of the day insisted that he had to be crucified – because he was a threat to their power.
And whatever you think of the Resurrection of Christ, whether you see it as a physical resurrection in the body – and I believe there’s a lot about the human body that scientists are still trying to get their heads around, this whole emerging belief that in the end we’re all just energy, and we still don’t know what we don’t know – or as a phenomenon that occurred in the disciples’ consciousness, a sort of collective shamanic experience, I think what matters most is the message behind it. It’s an overwhelming message of “the truth of Love transcending death”, as I express it in The Song of the Lovers.
It’s not just Love transcending death in a physical sense that matters, but also – in fact, all the more – in a spiritual sense. It’s about the ability of Love to break through depression, anxiety, apathy, overwork, overwhelm, addictions, and that awful sense of emptiness that symbolises the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s the idea that individually and collectively, we can come through even the most horrific of circumstances and be reborn: we can make a fresh start at any moment, full of hope and passion and joy. It’s that sense of “Lord, when I thought all hope was lost, you rose again to set me free” that bubbles up in the second verse of the Song of the Maiden.
The point I’ve been trying to work up to, in these blog posts, is the deeper ‘why’.
Why I went to Africa; why I stayed so long; why I came back to the UK; and why, this year, I felt I had to write a historical novel called ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’.
I think when you distil it down, it’s about the contrast between material poverty with spiritual wealth, on one side of the world, and spiritual poverty with material wealth, on the other. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that everyone in Tanzania is blissfully happy all the time even in the face of death and disease, but there really is this mindset in Africa that just makes life so much more liveable. There’s an acceptance of the present moment, and a contentment with what is (even when, on the face of it, ‘what is’ is full of troubles and hardships).
And there’s a genuine faith in God/dess (the Maasai word Engai is grammatically feminine, whereas the Swahili Mungu is gender-neutral) that flows through everyone’s conversation, all the time.
A Tanzanian friend of mine once asked me why white people always `hurry-worry’ and forget about the God who created them, and it’s so true. He gave me the example of tiny ants living in a red hibiscus flower: they don’t worry about tomorrow, they just live in the moment. He’s living in the USA now, though, so he gets it, he understands that we have to hurry-worry because that’s the way the system is designed, and it’s really, really hard to opt out of that system and find another way of being. And now he’s just trying to save up enough money to pay for a ticket back to Tanzania.
Another aspect of the spiritual wealth of Africa is that there’s a real, tangible interdependence, and a recognition of the fact that we truly are `all one’, at a very deep level: you can’t just look at where someone’s body begins and ends, and think that’s the end of who they are as a person. Everything is about the community, and what’s good for the community, rather than the individual. Even material goods get shared around the community, which is pretty frustrating when it’s your expensive watch or mobile phone or whatever and your neighbour’s son’s idea of interacting with it is to take it to pieces and see what’s inside. But hey, it’s all part of the learning curve.
So what I wanted to do with ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, and more broadly with the whole Songs of Reunion trilogy, is to show that a living spirituality that’s rooted in nature and community doesn’t have to be something ‘out there’. I’ve met some amazing people and been to some wonderful projects that are all about trying to rebuild a sense of community, and restore people’s connection with nature at a very deep level, but I think there’s still this huge tendency to assume that in Britain we don’t have any indigenous knowledge or indigenous spirituality. People are trying to import shamanism from Siberia or sweat lodges from the Native Americans, because that’s what they know about, but beneath the surface we have all these ancient British traditions of our own. We cling on to things like May Day and Halloween but we’ve forgotten the meanings.
There are two things that have been life-changing for me since I came back from Africa. The first was rediscovering this whole British pre-Christian tradition, which has survived or been revived in a whole variety of different forms, like Druidry, Wicca, Paganism, Goddess worship, and so on. That’s what got me back out into nature and making pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites, it’s what enabled me to connect with like-minded people who cared about creativity and community and celebrating the changing seasons, and overall it’s what pulled me out of quite a dark depression.
And the second was rediscovering Christianity, which I will talk about tomorrow.
When I first had the idea of writing a book, the obvious thing was to assume that it would be a memoir of my time in Africa.
This is the book I nearly wrote:
I started from the beginning, as most people would – my very first trip to Tanzania in 1999. I got so caught up in writing about the first man I ever loved that I found I had reached my 50,000-word goal – it was a National Novel Writers’ Month 50k challenge – and barely even mentioned Lesikar, let alone the projects that we did together. In trying to write memoirs, I found myself focusing on the parts that were easier to write, either by virtue of being further back in the past, or because the story was just more straightforward when I was only 21 and had no dependents.
But in trying to write memoir, either about my relationship with Lesikar or my earlier relationship, I was so upset about the level of racism in the world already that I felt I couldn’t say anything even remotely negative about any individual who’s ethnically African and living in Africa, in case it fuelled people’s stereotypes. There’s that whole ‘it’ll never last’ mindset: the idea that Africans and Europeans are fundamentally so different that they can never have a successful marriage, which is utterly ridiculous. Some of the comments on the YouTube video were just disgusting, and it was a huge wake-up call to realise that even now, in this supposedly enlightened age, there are still people for whom the colour of someone’s skin is such a big deal that they think a black man who marries a white woman doesn’t deserve to live. Duh.
I was in a position where I didn’t want to say anything at all about Maasai individuals or the Maasai culture that wasn’t 100% positive, and of course nobody and nothing in the world is 100% positive, and we’re always projecting our own issues and insecurities on to other people anyway. I think that’s the reason why, when I first started trying to write memoirs in 2006, I wasn’t succcessful in finding a publisher: there was just too much sunshine and roses, or rather sunshine and red hibiscus, to be interesting or convincing. So, having successfully created this 50,000-word memoir, I decided not to publish it.
My new book, ‘The Nineteen Songs of Reunion’, has given me a safe space for me to work through some of the emotions that I’m still processing, but to do it in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one individual or on the Maasai as a society. All the characters are fictional, although obviously they have to be based on something and come from somewhere. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that Lesikar `is’ one of the three male leads in the story, or that any episode in the book is an actual replica of something that happened in my life. It isn’t that at all. But there were certainly aspects of the story that mirror some of the emotions that I went through in Tanzania – not just with Lesikar and with my first boyfriend, but in other situations as well, all sorts of different interactions with people. So one thing that really did exist in a variety of situations was the challenge of trying to work out who people really are, how much is their true face and how much is the mask – the image that they present to the world. And, on the other side of it, whether they really saw and loved me for who I was, or if it was more of a transaction – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that’.
So, if not Africa, why 672 AD? Why not modern times?
There’s the superficial level, of course, which is that I know far more about what it actually feels like to live in a mud hut than most people who might decide to write a novel set in the Anglo-Saxon era (or the Early Medieval period, as it’s become known in relation to Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, which were all separate countries with a similar culture). That’s true enough: but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Setting my novel in a familiar place and an unfamiliar time has actually been enormously healing for me. It gives me the chance to imagine a setting in which I could be all of myself. It allows me to envisage a way of living what might be termed a ‘Maasai-style’ life (based on a strong sense of community, a deep connection to the land and to Spirit, freedom from the stress and overwhelm of modern Western society, and the opportunity to be creative) but doing that within the sacred landscapes of the UK, places that I’ve come to know and love all over again since I came back from Tanzania. And I’m hoping that this is something I’ll be able to share with my readers, and maybe inspire them to make some changes in the way they live their lives: to start reconnecting with some of those things for themselves, and discovering a healthier and happier way of being. Not that I’m trying to suggest that Maasailand is a utopia; but there’s a lot we can learn.
I have a deeper ‘why’, too. But that will have to be another blog post for another day. Work is beckoning…
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…
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.