Maasai warriors take on AIDS PlusNews, East Africa Published December 29, 2009 Young Maasai men are increasingly leaving their traditional lifestyles for employment in high-prevalence urban settings, putting them at a higher risk of HIV. Photo by Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN MAGADI, Kenya Attempts to promote HIV awareness among Kenyas Maasai community have often foundered on the communitys unwillingness to accept externally driven change; but a new initiative is using Maasai morans, or warriors, to spread the word. The Maasai are very traditional people and the best way to reach them is to go in without trying to dilute their culture we give them free space to learn by using cultural systems to integrate reproductive health education, said Peter Ngura, programme manager for a nomadic youth project of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), a health and development NGO. We train morans as peer educators and use them to reach out to their fellow morans because these are the only people culture allows them to interact freely with, he added. Morans will only listen to their moran chiefs and this is the reason they are the people we train to train their fellow morans who are under their command. Morans form an age set of male youths aged from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties; they have a duty to protect their community and livestock assets, and during this phase they are encouraged to have multiple affairs. Morans spend much of their time in the bush, where they are largely isolated from the rest of their community, only interacting with girlfriends, elders and chiefs who visit them to impart traditional Maasai wisdom. Lelein Kanunga is a moran chief who has broken with tradition to spend his days educating morans about the dangers of HIV as part of the AMREF programme. Because I have been taught about the dangers of sex without a condom and circumcizing girls and beating women, I have made it my duty to tell the same to my fellow morans, he told IRIN/PlusNews. There are things we have done like cutting women [female genital mutilation/cutting] but I think there havent been valid reasons for doing it. There are few statistics about HIV prevalence among the Maasai, who make up about 2 percent of Kenyas population, but their relative isolation from modern society means it has remained quite low compared with the general prevalence of seven percent within the Rift Valley Province, where most Maasai live. However, today, many young Maasai men leave the community to earn a living as drivers or traders in large, high-prevalence urban centres, returning home and continuing with traditional customs such as marrying several wives, putting the community at a higher HIV risk than in the past. It is not easy to tell morans to leave their girls because they pass the time talking about girls and sex, but today they know that condoms can protect them against HIV and other sexual diseases and they are using them, he added. It is not easy but now some of us say to parents of girls: We will only marry your daughters if they are not circumcized. Using culture, involving the community James Reteti, another moran-turned-peer-educator, has started to use a traditional milk gourd to carry and dispense condoms to his fellow morans. Morans value the gourd that is used to carry milk for them They believe anything in there is precious, he said. We have used these gourds as a traditional condom dispenser This makes them know this is a precious thing for them. According to AMREFs Ngure, one of the most important aspects of the project is involving the Maasai cultural leaders who wield strong influence in the community. Cultural elders make decisions and what they say goes, so we use them by imparting the knowledge about issues such as the dangers of encouraging many sexual partners, marrying off young girls, female genital cutting and the importance of family planning, he said. So far, the programme has trained 70 moran chiefs as peer educators in the three districts of Kajiado, Magadi and Loitoktok in Kenyas Rift Valley Province.