Mombasa and Zanzibar have a lot in common.
Mombasa sits on the southeastern coast of Kenya while Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. They both house fractured histories of an “Africa meets Arabia” old world feel with their location on the eastern coast of Africa; traders and adventurers traveled down from what is now the Middle East establishing Islam and trade points in the regions since the 11th century. Both locales are steeped in African, Persian, Arab, Portuguese and British influences, evident in the architecture, narrow streets, markets, mosques and temples.
They are also both places where many European white women come to buy sex from Maasai men.
I spent March of 2015 in Mombasa. My friends and I rented a large, private home on Diani beach and we spent days alternating between falling asleep on the veranda to floating in the Indian Ocean. The foot traffic across our little stretch of beach was consistent. There was always a tall and slender African man draped in the recognizably Maasai garb of crimson cloths and bright, primary colored beads. He usually had his arm around the waist of a considerably older white woman. The women were always at least twice the age of the men, and in some cases, triple. These pairings, with blatant disparity in age and attractiveness, would walk up and down the beach each day. Walking oftentimes turned into passionate displays of public affection. My Kenyan friends said the women come for the Maasai’s “skill in sex”.
I thought it was a European women’s version of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, and occasionally a Maasai even headed my way with questions of if I wanted company or needed a friend. That is, until I learned of “The White Maasai”, a book and later 2005 movie by a Swiss woman that traveled to Kenya and fell in love. It sold four million copies and promised “an exotic tale of love and adventure” on its cover. In Corinne Hofmann’s 320-page autobiography, she met Lketinga while on holiday with her current boyfriend, went home for 6 months, and then decided to uproot her life to live in the isolated bush, the traditional Maasai way with her African lover.
The book was terrible; the author fetishized the Maasai man while simultaneously showing a complete lack of regard for the culture she barged into. But, it was my curiosity in this possible sale of sex or search for love that had me in Zanzibar last month, sitting on a stone ledge in a narrow alleyway talking to Tobiko Melau. In Zanzibar, the contrast is even starker. The Maasai men there looked no more than 18 or 19, arms linked with older white mzungus (the Swahili word for “white people” and generally foreigner) from Italy, Netherlands and Germany.
I wasn’t interested in paying for sex, but I work in development and I have a plaguing writer’s curiosity. Maasai woman are cut, or more than 80% of them have undergone female genital mutilation, for reasons that include purity for their mates and the promise of fidelity. Yet, it seemed Maasai men purportedly, and for profit, regularly seek and partake in sexual relationships outside of marriage. The usual juxtaposition between women expectations and men realities spoke volumes.
Tobiko was missing two of his bottom front teeth and had identical scars on each cheek; traditional characteristics he told me prove that a man is a true Maasai. Between asking me if my father would allow me to wed and sharing secret Swahili jokes with his nearby Tanzanian friend, we talked sex and love.
“Many Maasai men believe that white is a good blessing,” he said. “If it is sex, they get good money. But sometimes they try to make relationships because then they can travel and move to the countries of the women.”
He told me white woman are more adventurous and that African women were too proud to try new things. While Tobiko minced words, his friend Elvis Mwingira had a more direct suggestion as to why white European women travel thousands of miles to sleep with (fake or authentic) Maasai men: circumcision. Elvis declared the Maasai method of circumcising leaves a ridge unlike traditional male circumcision. This ridge protrudes slightly and causes “extra sensation” for women during penetration.
We looked at Tobiko. He smiled and coyly refused to confirm or deny.
The transition from Maasai girl to Maasai woman is marked by a circumcision ceremony that occurs sometime after puberty when a girl prepares for marriage. There are four different types of cutting procedures that involve the removal of the clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruation to pass. All the methods can lead to recurring infections, severe bleeding, pain, difficulty in childbirth and urine retention.
“Our women our cut because it is our culture…our tradition, and it makes desire lower,” Tibiko told me. “If they don’t, it is easier to get disease.”
When Maasai men leave home to hunt or find grass for cattle, they are oftentimes gone for weeks at a time. This is a time, this Tanzanian Maasai, told me the women are vulnerable to increased sexual desire. It is a time where, if women were uncut, they might have sex outside of their marriage. Circumcision supporters believe cut women are more prone to sticking with one partner, thus lowering the risk of HIV/AIDs.
So while some true Maasai men frequent tourist beaches and cities in search of sexual profit, women are expected to keep their households in order and their legs closed.
The Maasai people are the most marketed ethnic group in all of Africa. They reside near many of the most popular game reserves in the African Great Lakes region and their villages are common stops on safari drives offering popular photo opportunities. Traditional Maasai beadwork is touted in many stores and marketplaces. They have impersonators and imposters. On the beaches of Mombasa, their called “beach boys” or “rastas”. Young men mostly of Samburu origin, a semi-nomadic people of north Kenya related to but distinct from the Maasai, dress in traditional Maasai swaths of fabric and intricate beaded jewelry. In Tanzania, Elvis told me the percentage of real versus fake Maasai in tourist areas could easily be 50/50. The topic of sexual tourism within the community is rarely called prostitution. It’s a budding business that leaves many speculating whom is being taken advantage of: sex and love-seeking white European women or (potentially phony) Maasai men seeking a payout.