By Hilary Volper, MSW, LCSW
Hillary Volper, LCSW is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice for over 25 years and practices in New York City, and Larchmont, New York. She provides individual, couples, and group therapy. She also directs workshops and teach “mindfulness meditation.” Ms. Volper is on staff at the Training Institute for Mental Health in New York City, where she supervises, teaches students about dreams, and runs their speaker’s bureau.
In 1996, Ms. Volper produced and directed a film for high school students, with the theme of encouraging young people to stand up for what is morally right in the world. Some of the film footage can be viewed on a permanent loop at the Heritage Museum, in New York City. For the last six years, Ms. Volper has written a column for a local newspaper called Notes From A Therapist’s Diary.
Q. Ms. Volper, why did you visit Tanzania?
When friends asked my husband and myself to join them on a safari to Tanzania, I jumped at the chance and we traveled as tourists. Before leaving for Africa, I arranged for a visit to a Maasai Boma (village), as I have had an interest in the Maasai since I was 18-years-old.
Q. What were the attitudes that you saw among the Maasai people regarding women and GLBT rights?
I did not know anything about the customs of the Maasai except that the men have multiple wives. During our stay on the Serengeti, we visited two Bomas in the northern region of Tanzania. They are not typical tourist destinations. One Boma was so remote that some of the children cried when they first saw us, having never seen white people before.
The Maasai are a warm and hospitable people. They live in huts made from cow dung and hay. They have no running water or electricity. The huts are about six feet square, with low entrances. A fire is maintained in the hut throughout the day for cooking. The hut has room for sitting and a loft area for sleeping. Children live with their parents until seven years of age and then are moved to a children’s hut. Their most prized possessions are their cows, sheep and goats.
We visited with the Maasai over a two-day period and saw the tribe prepare for a rain ceremony to Nasera, a sacred giant rock monolith hovering near their Bomas. The Serengeti had a drought for several months and both animals and people were suffering. We were treated as “honored guests.” Our arrival to the Boma coincided with the birth of a baby girl, and she was named after us: “Those That Travel.”
After witnessing the sacrificing of the cows, we were escorted to a hut with the head of the Boma, who is 61-years-old, and his two sons. We sat on hand carved wooden stools and tin cans and exchanged ideas. No women were present, except when tea was served. Our guide translated all of our conversations from Swahili into English. Our first question was, “What is it like to have multiple wives?” The oldest son said it was difficult because some wives lie about each other. He said he gives his wives four warnings to change their behavior. If a wife doesn’t change, he will beat her.
Education for all children is mandatory in Tanzania. However, the oldest son had sent three of his sons and his 15-year-old daughter to a boarding school in Arusha, the nearest city. She ran away with a boy, and he was forced to sell some cows to raise enough money to have her found. She is now back at the Boma, but he said he now will no longer educate his daughters. We gently pointed out that by educating his daughters, they in turn can educate the younger children. His feeling of betrayal was still too raw for him to think about changing his mind. He told us during the last few years some100 Maasai girls had run away from their Bomas. This problem is complicated by the fact that the Maasai fathers receive large dowries of cows for their daughters. The loss of young girls would mean a loss of revenue for the tribe and the loss of a custom that is several thousand years old. The leader asked us, “why do you keep your children home for so long?” We explained that we educated our children for many years so that they could get good jobs to support themselves.
He went on to say that he had heard that in our country “men are allowed to marry other men.” And he wanted to know “why President Obama doesn’t outlaw this?” In Tanzania, and most African countries, homosexuality is against the law. I explained that the medical community in the United States no longer considers homosexuality a disease. I also said that even if one were to beat a man for being with another man, one could never beat this out of him. He held his head in his hand, and shook it back and forth groaning softly. He seemed shocked that our country permitted this practice.
Q. Are there nonprofit groups/international working with the Maasai?
Yes. I contacted two Non-governmental Organizations (NG0’s) and one Community Based Organization (CBO) through email and phone. I tried emailing a social work school in Dar Es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, but did not receive a response. All participants asked for anonymity, fearing the government might close their organization if they said the wrong thing.
One Tanzanian woman who works with young girls in a CBO wrote: “In our country men are the ones who pay a dowry. The amount of the dowry differs from one tribe to another. (There are 120 tribes in Tanzania.) Cattle keeping tribes have big amounts to pay. When they pay a big dowry it makes women suffer a lot. I hate a dowry, it gives men power over women because they have paid for them.”
She went onto write: “Many tribes in this country hit their wives openly. It also differs from one tribe to another according to traditions and customs. In Tanzania, the Wakurya tribe believe that beating a woman is a sign of love! Can you imagine something like that? Men are always thought superior to women and the culture promotes this thinking. Women do not have the ability to make their own decisions. All men act like this. To change traditions is very difficult. And things will change slowly! We have NGO’s and CBO’s that are trying their best to educate society. The greatest area of need is in the rural areas.”
An American who lives and runs an NGO in Tanzania since 1998, confirmed this view. But she was harsher in her criticisms. She is outraged that a 15-year-old Maasai girl has to marry a man who is 15 to 20 years older than herself. Part of the reason for this disparity is that it often takes a man many years to accumulate a dowry to buy many wives. A 15-year-old girl has to marry a stranger, leave her home and live with her new husband in his Boma. Another American running an NGO in Kenya for Maasai women took a more moderate position. She confirmed that “wife beating” exists, but said that the “Maasai men love their wives and children.”
Because there is a limited understanding of sexual preferences in Tanzania, I thought it best to confine my questions to gay and lesbian rights. My African contact’s response to my questions about gay and homosexual rights was: “In our country, gay women and homosexual men are not killed. It is against the law to be gay or homosexual but there is no cruel punishment.” She did not elaborate.
The American I spoke to who lives in Tanzania said that “gay or homosexual people can be killed in the bush and in cities. There is no infrastructure to stop the crime.” And the American who works with Maasai women in Kenya said: “Tanzania is not a true democracy. Laws do not work the way they do in the United States. The Maasai and the Tanzanians are taught a Christian curriculum in school, which states that homosexuality, is “against God’s law.” Young males live with their mothers briefly. From ages 15 to 30, the male warriors live in their own huts. There is no concept of homosexuality or thought about homosexuality. What is of greater importance to the Maasai is their need to belong to the tribe and not be “ostracized.”
Q. What role do you see social workers playing in the region?
The social worker’s role in Tanzania and Africa is critical. One NGO whom I spoke with has hired four para-social workers who trained at the Institute of Social Work. ISW receives funding from a United States social work school. In 2008, the BBC wrote that “ISW reported that Tanzania needs at least 8,000 more social workers to meet the increasing demand for helping people. The response to this need has been to train existing community development officers and representatives of community-based NGO’s as para-social workers.”
Tanzania and many other African nations have a critical need for trained social workers. Not only do African women and GLBT people need advocacy, but they need help to care for the thousands of children who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. All people I contacted emphasized the need for education as a means to change certain behaviors, while at the same time respecting their culture. During through the weeks of contact I had with these people and others, I have been touched by people’s dedication to the welfare of Maasai and the less fortunate. And, lastly, I am appreciative of the Maasai people who not only welcomed us into their homes, but were open in telling about how they live.
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