Sonyanga Ole Ngais, Captain of the Maasai Cricket Warriors

SONYANGA OLE NGAIS IS CAPTAIN OF THE MAASAI CRICKET WARRIORS, COACH OF THE MAASAI CRICKET LADIES TEAM, AND ONE OF THE STARS OF THE HIGHLY ACCLAIMED ‘WARRIORS’, A POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY DIRECTED BY BARNEY DOUGLAS

Through the vehicle of cricket, a group of young Maasai men have found a voice – and are taking a stand in the fight against FGM. In November 2015, SI talked to Sonyanga during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign.

The film follows the young sportsman and his team from his birth place in Laikipia, north-east of the Great Rift Valley, Kenya, as they train and travel to England, to compete in the 2013 Last Man Stands World Championship. However, Sonyanga’s story is about much more than cricket: “the ball is the spear, the bat is the shield”; If you look a little deeper, this is a story of a group of young Maasai brothers and their nephews, taking a stand against discrimination of the girl-child. It’s about collective protection; for their sisters, their daughters and their future daughter’s daughters. This is about the war on FGM.

The Ngais brothers: Saidimu (the eldest), Paraga, Sonyanga and Lesikito, have five sisters. Four of them were cut, married off at an early age, before their brothers were mature enough to help put a stop to the suffering. As these young men watched traditions repeat themselves again and again, they became traumatised. For each of them, their elder sisters were their ‘little mothers’; taking care of them when their mother and father were away searching for food, grass and water for the animals. The Ngais brothers are the visionary bearers of the idea behind the Maasai Men Against FGM (MMAFGM),and their story is one of a cultural revolution; of the questioning of discriminating and harmful traditions that steal the freedom and dreams of young girls.

If current trends continue, about 86 million additional girls worldwide will be subjected to the FGM practice by 2030 – however the Ngais brothers believe in change. They have chosen to fight to eradicate FGM from the surface of their own land and to try to influence other societies to do the same.

Sonyanga speaks to us of his vision for the Maasai community: “Female genital mutilation, early marriages and lack of equal rights are among the retrogressive practices in our Maasai way of living. If we look to eradicate these practices then I see a future where everyone enjoys equal rights. A healthy and well educated society with a positive focus on life. I believe that we don’t have to physically mutilate a girl for her to realize that she is now an adult. Rather she needs to be empowered mentally, she needs to understand the reality and get to know about the repercussions that follows thereafter.” Of the five Ngais sisters the only uncut sister is the last born. All four brothers stood up for their sister and in time, their parents allowed them to protect her from FGM and from being married off to an adult whilst still a child. Sonyanga’s parents allowed this under one condition: The brothers would sponsor her schooling ensure that she gets a job and can provide for herself, and that she does not disappoint them at all. Their youngest sister went to a local primary school and became one of the best pupils in her school. Now in her second year in a national level school she passed her Kenya primary education with flying colours. However bringing about such change and convincing the elders of a different path was no easy task.

Sonyanga talks of “protecting the good part of our culture from erosion” explaining: “It wasn’t easy to convince the elders to change their traditional perspective on this matter. I could perhaps compare it with the peeling of an onion. For one to reach the core of the onion you have to peel it again and again, since there are many layers that one encounters before you get to the core. It is not such an easy task as it may appear. It involves a tearful process, one sheds a lot of tears. The onion is like a culture in a way. The core here is the heart of the culture and it shapes the entire culture, which is dearly guarded and protected by the elders. So now you can imagine how easy it is to change the minds of the elders!”

Sonyanga Standing by River

“Maasai are people who are deeply rooted to their culture, no one is allowed to question an elder let alone our ways of living, so we had no voice” says Sonyanga. “But with the discovery of the power of sport – cricket in our case, with the traveling and gathering ideas and bringing them back to apply them in our society, this really shed some light of hope for us. We applied the principle of the saying that ‘the eye that leaves the village sees further’. With our cricket we have travelled abroad several times and we have gathered a lot of perspective and we brought this back to let our society realise what we have actually learned. We realised how women outside are enjoying equal rights as men, we learned that FGM is not really that important in a girl’s life, how important it is for our girls to continue with school rather than giving them away while they are still young. So our elders could actually picture the whole scenario and little by little, start changing, but they must always all agree since the culture is so deep rooted to them”.

With the success of the Warriors documentary, Sonyanga talks of its message and what he hopes might be learned from the film: “Warriors is a very powerful documentary which is very motivating, encouraging and educational. It shows the power of sport and the importance of education in our societies. The Warriors film can be utilized in schools or other organizations as a tool to spread messages on FGM, and it can be used to encourage other young people to stand up, to fight against FGM and fight for gender parity in their societies, The film can also be used to motivate, unite and to spread the message of peaceful coexistence through sports. It can really be lovely to include Warriors film in the school curriculums globally, because I truly believe in the power of it”.

A percentage of the profit from Warriors will go back to a trust in the Maasai community, which will be used to create an education centre for young people in the region. “With the centre there is a lot of hope” says Sonyanga, “since we will use it in many ways. First it will be a place where girls and women receive education from experts regarding their rights. It will be a place where girls can find refuge, with health facilities for the community, together with sporting facilities, and of course, cricket!”.

So what of the cricket? Sonyanga continues: “We have been teaching cricket in many primary and secondary schools in our regions because that is where we can get our messages through to a good number of children. Girls get a chance to compete with boys, hence realising that they are as capable as the boys. Girls realise that they actually have a space to fight for in their societies and a chance to realise their talents. Personally with this realisation I figured out that I needed to start a ladies cricket team, and I named it Maasai Cricket Ladies. The point here was to have a ladies team equal to the Warriors team, and it is even more powerful! The idea here is that now girls get to stand up for their rights, and they educate their fellow girls on the importance of avoiding FGM, whilst using the same sport that Warriors use to spread the messages. So you can imagine the combination, Maasai Cricket Ladies with the Maasai Cricket Warriors? So powerful I believe. To me this is young people uniting together for a well informed and a healthy society”.

GLOBAL VOICE SIGN-UP

Sign up to read the very latest edition of the Soroptimist International Newsletter.