You’ve never seen a sports team like this one.
Dotted across a dusty rectangle of dirt in the Kenyan savanna, bare-chested Maasai men in traditional clothing — plaid red fabrics and colorful accessories made of feathers and beads — are playing a sport known for its stiff whites: cricket.
But winning isn’t the team’s No. 1 goal. It’s putting the practice of female genital mutilation, which has affected girls as young as six in the community, into a permanent time-out.
The Maasai Cricket Warriors, as they’re called, are the subject of Warriors, a documentary film by British director Barney Douglas. It follows the Maasai players from their village of Il Polei all the way to London for their first cricket championship.
The film, which comes out on DVD this month, premiered in Los Angeles last September and has been shown in the U.K., South Africa and Kenya. Forty-five percent of the profits will go toward creating a community youth center in Il Polei.
Even before cricket came to town, the village knew what FGM meant for Maasai girls. Sonyanga Ole Ngais, one of the stars of Warriors and the team captain, witnessed three of his sisters undergo the pain of “the cut.”
Once they were circumcised, they were considered ready for marriage and were quickly married off. Their education ended abruptly.
Ngais and the younger generation of Maasai men in the village know the power of an educated female. In the movie, they tell how she can help the men and raise up the community as a whole. But to encourage this behavior, the men know they have to speak up, too.
“In their society, men are dominant,” says Douglas. “So for this reason, it’s partly the young men’s responsibility to stand up and say, ‘FGM is not right. It’s unacceptable. We want our young women to go to school.’ ”
And how did cricket come into the picture?
Aliya Bauer introduced cricket to the area in 2007 during a long-term research trip on baboons for the University of California. The South African thought it might be fun, plus she missed playing the sport. Bauer shipped in some equipment, contacted the local chief for his support and taught the villagers how to play.
They were hooked — the Maasai found the movements of the game similar to hunting and spear-throwing, a big part of their culture. In 2009, a group of six or seven young men in their teens and early 20s decided to start an official team, the Maasai Cricket Warriors, with Bauer as their coach.
But they didn’t just want to play. They wanted to use their growing popularity as a cricket team to champion their opposition to FGM.
The men hoped that by banding together as a sports team, they could gain the clout needed in Maasai society to stand up to the elders against FGM — and get them to reconsider the tradition’s importance.
The Warriors also wanted to inspire youth. They taught children how to play cricket and traveled to schools to speak to students about FGM, gender equality and HIV/AIDS, a disease that has affected the Maasai community.
They led by example, vowing not to marry any woman who has undergone the cut.
“If you want to join the team, you have to subscribe to the objective of ending FGM,” says Douglas. “And you have to practice what you preach.”
The elders were skeptical that cricket could make any real impact against FGM in Il Polei.
“We have not yet seen the fruits that this cricket team has brought to the community,” says one village elder early in the film.
In 2013, when the team decided to compete in the Last Man Stands amateur cricket championship in London, things started to change. The community was buzzing with excitement over the team’s trip. Children were clamoring to play cricket. The adults were proud.
“Their journey to London greatly enhanced their status and allowed them to question their elders,” says Douglas. “This is something a warrior should never do.”
Warriors climaxes with a conversation between the village elders and the players. Perched on a flat rock and staring out into the vast Kenyan savannah, members of the old generation and the new engage in a civil debate about the tradition of FGM.
“This is your time, this is your life,” says one village elder in the scene. “We old people are through. We need to ask the [young men what they think about FGM]… it is you guys who will marry.”
The elders give the young men their blessing to stop marrying girls who have been circumcised, which could then discourage families from enforcing the practice.
Today, the Maasai Cricket Warriors has grown to more than 25 members. A girls’ team has formed. Both teams travel to schools in and around the area to teach children how to play cricket and encourage young people to speak out against FGM.
Ngais, the team captain, now studies communications and electronic media at Daystar University in Nairobi. He hopes to work in the film industry when he graduates.
“What I hope comes across is that young people can affect change,” says Douglas. “Young people can get a bad reputation sometimes. But the Warriors did it with the right intentions. It’s an inspiring message.”