"Maasai gatherings are usually a time for celebration and festivities. People come together from far and wide and we feast and have fun. But I think this one will be different. What we have come to discuss is serious and it is a big threat to us Maasai," said Rafael ole Moono, from his stool in the shade of the acacia tree.
As he spoke, Maasai elders from several districts in northern Tanzania were gathering under the trees. The men, clad in their traditional reds and purples, found a tree to lean against while the women, decorated in their ornate rings, bracelets and headdresses, sat separately in a group.
Ole Moono was about to open a two-day meeting, coordinated by his organisation, Imusot e Purka (Kimaasai for "Consciousness to All"). The organisation is raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in the Maasai community which, although still marginalised, is being opened up to new influences.
"Times are changing, and in one respect, as Maasai, we are changing too," ole Moono said. "Before, our warriors [the "moran", or traditional Maasai fighters] would steal cattle, but now many of them have to go into urban areas to work and earn money. They often take with them their attitude towards sex. What made me worried is that when it comes to sex, the Maasai have no limits."
Because of the traditional age set system that exists within the community, ole Moono said that the Maasai culture of sharing was potentially an explosive catalyst for spreading HIV/AIDS.
"Sharing is a major way of life. We share everything, whether it is food from the same bowl, milk from the same calabash or even our wives whom we share and have children with," he said. "The youth are given a lot of freedom and they have an open field for practising sex. You are encouraged to use your youthful energy and then by the time you are an elder, you settle down."
The concern is that young warriors will continue to satisfy their sexual desires - some say needs - in urban areas where HIV prevalence is considerably higher than rural areas. They will then return and spread the virus within their traditional communities.
At the meeting, the elders were to discuss how effective the work of Imusot e Purka had been in the two years since they began visiting Maasai settlements in Handeni and Kilindi districts and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Women's participation improving
"We initially came across a real problem with our culture not giving women the freedom to get involved in this movement," Julia Sampson, a women's mobilisation officer who works for Imusot e Purka, told IRIN. "It has been slow and there has been some resistance, but after all the meetings we have held, they are speaking more openly and they are demanding to be listened to more."
At the meeting, efforts to mix men and women were initially resisted and contributions came mostly from the men. Gradually, however, the groups came together and issues were discussed openly and frankly.
Sampson says that these meetings are indicative of a wider change within relationships between Maasai men and women.
"Our tradition teaches us that you should just love your husband, he will love you and you will be guided by the culture, she said, "but as times change, and we face these new challenges, we are discovering the idea of one man and one woman and the Maasai women will learn to have more control over their emotions and their men."
Although they have headed to the urban areas in their thousands, it seems that the warnings have been heeded by at least the more traditional of the warriors. Until they were educated about HIV/AIDS, they often referred to it as the mysterious "killer disease" in towns.
"As warriors, we do have girlfriends, sometimes many of them, and, because it is part of our life, we engage in free sex," Sinyakwa Njokorde, a warrior at the meeting, said. "But once we go to the cities, we don't have sex because we are afraid of the women there as we know some are infected with HIV/AIDS."
Kipamba Lesaito, a fellow warrior from the area who had just returned from Dar es Salaam, where he worked as a night watchman, added that they abstained until they came back to their traditional homes, as they felt safer. "At our village, we know most in our age set are good and do not have sex with women outside the Maasai community. This protects us and our traditions."
Not "too bad", yet
There are not any official figures on HIV prevalence specifically within the Maasai community. But although health officials do not believe the problem is "too bad" yet, there are signs that many of the warriors are not as careful as those who attended the meeting.
"When the Maasai go into towns, they do earn money and they indulge in drinking and this changes their behaviour," Omari Kilobwa, HIV/AIDS coordinator at Handeni District Hospital, told IRIN. "They are contracting sexually transmitted diseases so they are obviously at risk from HIV/AIDS."
Kilobwa said that with more education, and more meetings, greater numbers of Maasai could be made aware of the risks, and the situation would not necessarily get "out of control".
Abstinence and faithfulness are not concepts immediately accepted in the Maasai community, so much so that much of ole Moono's time is spent explaining the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS. However, as in many other communities, condoms are not universally accepted either.
"The idea that they are helping prevent the spread of AIDS is being accepted, but for many women in our community, condoms are also a problem," he said. "For them, sexual satisfaction is a result of men ejaculating inside them, so they don't think a condom is right. We are trying to discuss this issue and come up with a solution."
The Maasai culture of sharing may still pose a potential threat and encourage the spread of HIV/AIDS. But ole Moono argues that despite their deep-rooted traditions, the Maasai have acknowledged the new challenge, and do seem prepared to adapt.
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN
humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views
of the United Nations. Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003]