Wouter Van Dongen|21.02.2014|Feature Real stories
How young leaders from MTV Staying Alive are empowering young Maasai by educating them about safe sex

Meet Leshan, a 23-year-old Moran—a young Maasai man—from Kenya. Leshan looks after his father’s cattle and travels long distances to trade livestock on various markets in the region. He is regularly approached by commercial sex workers at these markets, who follow him because they believe he has money.

Leshan is not the only one who is confronted with this temptation. Most of the livestock markets are located in distant urban areas and many young Maasai men who visit these places end up with a commercial sex worker, increasing their risk of HIV infection.

Many Maasai are unable to go to school and have never received any form of sexual health education. As a result, negative attitudes towards condoms are prevalent and many prejudices against them continue to exist. Leshan, for instance, believed that condoms were ineffective. In fact, he says: “I have never used a condom in my life because my friends tell me that the lubricant in it is actually HIV itself.”

As a result, young people like Leshan are at an extreme risk because they don’t use protection when having sex. This situation is complicated even further by the fact that polygamy and having multiple sexual partners even when married are common and culturally accepted practices within the Maasai community.

Determined to do something about the increasing number of HIV infections among the Maasai, youth-led organisation YOMACDI (Young Maasai Cultural Development Initiative) decided to take action. With the support of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation they have set up a project to educate young Maasai people about HIV prevention and the importance of safe sex.

YOMACDI’s project leader, Peter, says that there are many additional factors that put Maasai people at increased risk of contracting HIV. Not only is female genital mutilation still widespread within the Maasai community, women have little say in their sexual and reproductive health as a result of the patriarchal culture that is entrenched within Masaai society. This makes young women vulnerable and men often take advantage.

Anecdotally, Peter says that poor access to clean water is also a contributing factor to the sexual behaviours of young Masaai men. Because access to water is very limited, personal hygiene can suffer. According to Peter, the scarcity of water leads to a lack of proper hygiene among Masaai women, which makes many men look for alternative, cleaner sexual partners—such as sex workers in urban areas.

YOMACDI aims to empower young women by providing them with basic knowledge about personal hygiene as well as with negotiation skills so that they are in a stronger position to negotiate safe sex. Combining traditional dance performances with HIV-prevention messages, they also reach out to the larger Maasai community and educate young people about condom use, family planning, and gender-based violence and provide HIV-testing and counselling services. As a result of YOMACDI’s activities in 2013, they reached more than 3,000 Maasai with information about HIV prevention.

“Now that I know the truth about condoms I am ready to start using them,” says Leshan, who now no longer hesitates to use a condom. “I want to get tested for HIV. If I am negative I will always use a condom and if I am already infected I will try and live positively”.

Leshan has since been tested and found out he was negative. He is now working together with YOMACDI as a peer educator to spread awareness about HIV among his Maasai peers.

If you’d like to support YOMACDI or another project funded by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation you can find out more here.

Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen