Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Maasai Cricket Warriors

Dressed in flowing red skirts and draped in colorful bead necklaces but otherwise bare bodied, the warriors from the legendary Kenyan tribe of Maasai are one of the world's most unusual and unlikely cricketing teams. Dropping their spears in favor of cricket bats and leather balls, this group of youth is trying to promote healthy living within their community, and spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS and women's issues by using sports as the medium. They call themselves the Maasai Cricket Warriors.

Cricket came to this remote corner of Kenya six years ago entirely because of the efforts and passion of one South African woman, Aliya Bauer, who coaches the Maasai team. Bauer was sent to Kenya's Laikipia region to work on a research project about baboons. Stationed there in the bush, she missed cricket so much that she decided to introduce the game to the local community.

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She got some basic equipment and a few soft balls from back home, and went in to the local school to do an introductory session. The boys took to it, and she agreed to come back and coach them twice a week. The Maasai tribesmen passing the playing field were intrigued by this novel new sport, and would stop to watch. Their curiosity soon turned into a desire to have a go themselves.

As her team grew in size, Bauer realized she needed a little more help, and made contact with the charity Cricket Without Boundaries. With their help, Bauer managed to secure additional kits for their training. By this time, the Massai warriors had started playing proper matches against teams from Tanzania and around.

Despite the lack of proper playing facilities, the shortage of funding and the absence of regular competition, the team went from strength to strength and today it includes 24 players, all coming from Il Polei and the neighboring Endana village. Last year the team managed to raise funds to travel to Cape Town and take part in the twenty20 tournament “Last Man Stands”, although they failed to win any of their games. This year, however, they managed to win two of their games, reaching the semi-finals of their group during the event, held from August 26 to September 4.

But more than just fun, the Warriros use cricket as a tool to tackle social problems and spread health messages in their community. During training, volunteer coaches visiting local schools to teach the game to young pupils, also raise awareness about the dangers of HIV/AIDS, campaign against female genital mutilation, child marriage and animal poaching and try to improve relationships between rival communities.

For instance, teachers have incorporated HIV/AIDS awareness into cricket and coaching by using the ABC approach – Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condom Use. “Abstaining from sex is like a batsman abstaining from hitting balls in the air so he is not caught. Being faithful to ones partner is like how batsmen must communicate to decide whether to make a run or not. And use of condoms is like how batsmen must protect their wickets," explains Nissan Jonathan Ole Meshami, the former captain of the Cricket Warriors, who was a cowherd, the youngest child of a family of 11, before he started playing cricket. Nissan’s spear-throwing abilities have ensured that he can deliver a cricket ball with some fast pace on it. Bowling is his greatest asset.

"Our parents, they're helping us because they are seeing what we are doing is something very important to the community," said Sonyanga Weblen Ole Ngais, the team captain. "Also, most of the Warriors are not working, so it creates some opportunity we get from this."

Some of the team's social initiatives are captured in "Warriors," a documentary expected to be released next year with the aim of sharing a message of hope with the rest of the world, according to Bauer.

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On the right is team captain Nissan Jonathan Ole Meshami. Meshami was born in 1986 in a remote village in the Rift Valley area of Kenya, the youngest in a family of nine children. Unable to attend school, he helped his family tend their herds of goats and sheep. "I mastered the art of throwing a spear at a very early age and I also became good at throwing stones long distances. The aim of the spear was never to harm or hurt any wildlife, but rather as a protection if ever I had found myself in a one-on-one situation having to fight for my own life."

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Sources: The Guardian, CNN, The Atlantic, Avaxnews, Official website

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