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Story Publication logo November 6, 2015

Maasai Women "Carry Each Other"


Image by Sydney Combs. Tanzania, 2015.

New economic demands are forcing Maasai women into the workforce. While facing fierce backlash for...

Media file: cpoy_videothumbnail_sydneycombs.jpg

Hans Glick interviews Sydney Combs, Pulitzer Center student fellow from the University of Chicago, for Global Citizen:

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you see the phrase "gender equality in Africa"?

Chances are, it's not positive. From gender imbalances in the classroom to female genital mutilation in more traditional societies, Africa doesn't exactly have the most sterling reputation when it comes to empowering girls and women.

But if a beautiful new short film is any indication, the winds of change are gathering speed for at least one group of African women.

The film's called "Kinapa," and it tells the story of how women in one rural village in northern Tanzania are pushing back against centuries of patriarchal control and starting their own small businesses.

Sydney Combs is the photojournalist and videographer behind the film. She recently completed a Pulitzer Center student fellowship in Tanzania, where she documented gender roles and female entrepreneurship among the Maasai people.

Sydney and I were classmates at the University of Chicago, so when I heard about her new project I knew I had to find out more. Sydney was kind enough to answer a few questions about her film via email despite irregular internet access and the occasional blackout in Tanzania. Take five minutes to watch the film, then read on to learn more about how it all came together!

Hans Glick: What brought you to Tanzania?

Sydney Combs: In 2013, I conducted a brief ethnographic project (in the same village) looking at Maasai perceptions on female entrepreneurship. At this time, most Maasai did not support women selling anything but milk at the market. I began targeting rogue businesswomen and heard many stories of women cleverly selling goods despite their husbands' wishes, harsh social backlash, lack of resources, and so on. As I gathered more stories, I noticed that almost every woman's success depended, in some way or another, on help from a fellow conspirator.

Women were teaching each other trades (e.g. how to prepare tobacco powder), providing microscopic microloans to each other (often as little as $15 USD), or selling goods at the market for one another if they were unable or forbidden.

When I pitched this story to the Pulitzer Center, I knew I wanted to focus on this communal aspect of women's empowerment. I thought this angle would provide a space to highlight Maasai women's creativity and perseverance.

HG: The women you profile are breaking down gender barriers by finding work after generations of Maasai women were told not to. What struck you most about how these women are tackling inequality?

SC: I was particularly interested in how women were pooling their resources and morale in order to overcome barriers to business. While women's empowerment requires education and support from local men, it also demands tenacity from the women involved. Motivated by necessity and love for their families, generations of hard-fought success have chipped away at harsh stigmas and pried open doors for new generations of women. The women's groups have only exacerbated this progress by providing subsidized avenues in which women can freely encourage and teach another. It is hard not to admire their eagerness to support one another and drive their own change.

I also found their current situation a great example of how women's empowerment necessitates change in all aspects of society. For instance, whenever women collectives receive grants from NGOs or local politicians, they'll often use the money to buy and distribute livestock to their members. Although the animals will eventually sell for hundreds of thousands of shillings, women must rely on men to receive the money. Herding livestock is a male-exclusive practice and women are unable to buy, sell, or trade livestock at the market. With these restrictions, women rely on men for the welfare of their investments. So even though women are gaining control of capital, their progress is still clearly regulated by men. There's a long way to go before women have complete economic independence.

HG: What inspired these women to push for their rights?

SC: Although Maasai women in Oltukai have been receiving aid for almost a decade, changes are only just now starting to take hold. In 2005, a politician running for district representative distributed small grants to organized groups of Maasai women. Women quickly formed groups, but these fell apart once the money was distributed.

It wasn't until the aid organization Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO) came that sustainable change took place. MWEDO was created by Maasai women interested in women empowerment. In Oltukai, the NGO set to work by establishing literacy and financial empowerment classes for women. Graduates from these classes formed women's collectives, opened bank accounts, and were given grants from MWEDO. Since these collectives are recognized by the village and district offices, they are also eligible to apply for grants from other NGOs and politicians. When these grants run dry, MWEDO commissions traditional-styled jewelry from the collectives. This provides the groups with a semi-consistent source of income.

Apart from literacy and financial empowerment classes, MWEDO also works on community health and human rights issues. For instance, they are currently training traditional birth assistants and are fighting for land inheritance and livestock rights for women. They have also started a secondary school and provide scholarships to young girls. You can see more of their work here.

HG: Your film is full of incredible visuals—I was particularly struck by the closeups of women's hands at work. How would you describe this film's visual style, and why'd you choose it?

SC: Thanks for the compliment! My background is in photojournalism so I think that led me to prioritize the visual narrative while filming. During filming I tried to make the images so arresting and full that it constantly pulls your attention back into the film. Hopefully I did this by making the images both worth considering in their own right and simply enjoyable to watch. As for my style, I tend to like clean shots, without much clutter, and a clear focus. It helps me stay focused during editing and I like to think it helps my narrative come across more precisely. Perhaps in the future, as I become more comfortable with the medium, I'll provide more space for viewers to make their own decisions and interpretations.

I'm so glad you mentioned the hands; I was using them in hopes of stressing just how physically demanding life is for a Maasai woman. Throughout my discussions with Sipapei Lekisamba, the narrator, she repeatedly chastised non-working women for sitting at home, "with nothing to do." Coming from my comfortable life as a student, I thought her critique that Maasai women were lazy was absurd. A women's household responsibilities are incredibly demanding and I was constantly amazed by their ability to make time and energy for physically demanding businesses. I was also trying to show the level of craftsmanship in almost everything the women do. From fetching firewood to sifting dry tobacco leaves, they work with precision and care.

HG: Did you face any unique cultural or technical challenges working with the Maasai?

SC: I hope you can't tell, but this was actually my first (albeit short) documentary. So on top of figuring out the format, I was completely on my own, working in three languages (English, Swahili, and Maa), and was half a world away. This made it all a bit challenging. What's more, even though I had worked in Oltukai before I was not capable of independently navigating the social channels needed to acquire permission (both official and unofficial) to begin working. It was my translator, Sion Paul, who gracefully guided me through the dance that eventually led to my warm welcoming in the village.

Through word of mouth and many helpful strangers, we connected with the Kelele family in only a few days. Through the Kelele's kindness, I didn't face many of the restrictions other journalists or filmmakers have noted when working with the Maasai. The Kelele's opened their house and lives to me — allowing me to tag along wherever they went. With this, they were also always willing to defend my presence in a public gathering. Their faith in the project made it possible in the first place.

HG: One positive outcome of this movement is that the narrator was able to afford school for her daughter. How do you expect these culture shifts will make life different for the next generation of Maasai girls and women?

SC: Most people I spoke with had strong opinions about the next generation of Maasai women. The narrator, Sipapei Lekisamba, seemed focused on the material advances for the next generation. She dreams that one day her granddaughter will live in a house with a metal roof. The first village chairman of the area predicts that more families will begin sending their daughters to school. At the moment, educating daughters is a relatively expensive process with little return for the parents (when compared to educating their sons). He thinks this will change as more people recognize women's potential.

Both of these outcomes, higher standards of living and better education, seem likely and arguably are already happening. What this means for Maasai women 20 or 30 years from now is harder to tell. If Lekisamba had her way, they'd all be nurses and own two-story businesses in town.

HG: Did you get a sense of how men in the community are responding to these changes?

SC: From my impression, it is becoming harder and harder for men to publicly deny the monetary benefit of working women. This wasn't the case only two years ago when I was doing research in the area. But publicly supporting and personally supporting women seem to be two different things. For example, one of the most openly supportive men I spoke with did not "allow" his own wives to conduct business. When I pressed him about why he kept them at home, he didn't provide a substantial answer: "Because it's just better that way." To me it seemed as though he was supportive of women doing business… just not his particular women. I found this contradiction one of the strongest indications of the progress yet to be made.

HG: What's one thing you want everyone who watches the film to take away from it?

SC: If you look at mainstream articles on the Maasai, women are often referenced in off-hand statements like, "As for Maasai women, they live in one of the most patriarchal societies in the world" and therefore lead a simple subjugated life doing x, y, and z chores. And while, yes, Maasai women lack considerable authority, it does not mean that they are defenseless or powerless against men. They intricately negotiate power and so their influence is sometimes difficult to recognize.

If all went according to plan, "Kinapa" will prompt viewers to reconsider women living in patriarchal societies. While at a disadvantage, they are cunning, impossibly resourceful, and constantly working to define and redefine their roles in society.



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