Kenya's Masaai women more sexually free

Sarah Marshall

Masaai women in Kenya are enjoying greater sexual rights and freedoms, with the help of tourists.

It's not unusual to see a crowd gathered for Talek's weekly market, but today the dusty, sun-scorched streets are especially busy. Turning their backs on piles of potatoes and stacks of grain, the local Maasai have temporarily paused mundane shopping activities to focus on a spectacle far more extraordinary.

Wrapped in red shukas, necks looped with a rainbow of beaded garlands, a group of young men is causing commotion akin to an A-list boyband arriving in town. Mobile phones held aloft, the rapt audience can't get enough of the action, as their idols break into song and dance, their jingling silver charms scattering reflections like a disco ball.

Taking a break from a game drive in Kenya's Maasai Mara, I'm standing with a group of bemused and awestruck tourists, trying to decipher exactly what's going on.

"They're singing traditional Maasai songs," explains Nick Reding, founder and executive director of NGO S.A.F.E., a former actor most recognisable for his roles in The Bill and Silent Witness, "but we've changed the lyrics".

These aren't the sorts of verses you'd end up humming in the shower, though - our performers, the Maasai morans, are singing about the controversial topic of FGM.

Although illegal in Kenya, female genital mutilation (or "cutting", a far less incendiary term S.A.F.E. project director Sarah Tenoi prefers to use) is traditionally an integral part of a Maasai woman's graduation to adulthood. But the physical and emotional consequences of a brutal act that's been moulded into a cultural norm, are devastating, and women like 31-year-old Sarah want it to end.

Last year, S.A.F.E. (Sponsored Arts For Education) launched the morans' performance project with financial support from Exodus Travels and funds raised by photographer Paul Goldstein, who runs the Kicheche camps in Maasai Mara's conservancies.

"The morans are the protectors of the culture," explains Nick, who gave up a successful acting career to start S.A.F.E. in 2001, working primarily to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. The young warriors (aged between 14 and 30) usually live a very separate life in the forest, looking after cattle and protecting the community from lions. "So, to get them singing about how they want to marry uncut girls and for people to stop hurting their sisters is extremely powerful."

When Sarah, a smart, tenacious and softly spoken Maasai, first approached Nick in 2007 with a plea to end FGM, the number of girls receiving the full and most painful Type 2 cut was 100%. Tales of women being held down by up to eight men and left with their legs tied to the roof of a hut for up to six weeks while wounds healed are chilling - especially for Sarah, who nearly died as a result of the ordeal.

But last year, at the beginning of December's "cutting season", 32 per cent of girls had undergone an alternate rite of passage. Presented with a blue shuka and chain to wear on her ear, every element of the ceremony is the same; the only difference is at the end, instead of being cut, the newly recognised woman is cleansed with milk - a sacred resource in Maasai culture.

Nick and Sarah hope this year that statistic will be even higher, and the success so far is testimony to their hard work.

Initially, when the project started, two mixed gender groups performed as the S.A.F.E. Maa - one singing in defence of FGM and one against. "Both sides are discussed in public, so no matter what you feel, you hear your side of the argument," says Nick.

For anyone from a Western culture, it's hard not to feel angry about what's happening to these girls. "It's barbaric," seethes Paul later that evening, a blistering red Mara sunset radiating his unbridled fury. "It has to end."

Acutely aware Maasai men get "all the box office", Paul is eager to educate tourists about the forgotten women of this culture, who are equal custodians of a wildlife paradise that attracts thousands of visitors every year.

After dark, beneath a sky studded with starry spotlights, the morans give a special performance at Kicheche Bush Camp to show their thanks, and Nick is almost reduced to tears. "Some of those songs are very personal to the Maasai culture," he tells us.

Sitting in the background is Sarah, whose unwavering sense of calm is remarkable. The person who should be most angry shows no hate or crippling resentment. Her only goal is change, and she's decided the best way to achieve that is by working with the community rather than against it.

"If you talk with them slowly, eventually they'll agree," she says wisely.

"Maasai culture is under attack," explains Nick. "Physical and cultural connectivity is so much greater. The fear - especially amongst elders - is that if they let this practice go, they are letting everything go. That's why our approach is culturally appropriate, non-judgemental and respectful."

More than a pledge to end FGM, this is a much bigger story about the assertion of Maasai women's rights. During workshops, Sarah has helped mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters talk openly about sex and discuss topics such as orgasms - something that's never been achieved before.

This is girl power in its truest form, and more than the boyband morans, this inspiring woman has the presence of a real rock star.