ARUSHA, Tanzania — ARUSHA, Tanzania -- One night when Neema Laizer was 14, her father announced that she had to go live with her new husband and his two wives the next day. Nobody asked the seventh-grader how she felt; it did not matter.
But Neema, sensing her life was about to end, refused to submit. With help from her courageous mother and an uncle who was a priest, she fled her family's rural compound that night. Driven over bad roads to this city near Mount Kilimanjaro, she ended up at a center that places girls in schools and keeps them safe from forced marriage.
"I wanted to study, maybe go to university and be a doctor," she said recently, days after graduating from a high school she never would have seen had she been married off four years ago.
Neema is a member of the Masai, a proud people from northern Tanzania and Kenya known worldwide for the lanky, spear-clutching male warriors in red garb. For ages, their semi-nomadic ways have centered on cattle, simple living - and deeply chauvinistic traditions.
But some Masai say it is time to end certain gender-based practices. Ritual female genital mutilation is common despite laws against it. Culturally sanctioned promiscuity raises fears that AIDS could ricochet nightmarishly through Masai communities. And girls as young as 12 are forced into polygamous marriage.
Old traditions die hard, though.
Consider genital mutilation, also called female circumcision. "A woman does not recognize herself as a woman without circumcision," said Edward Porokwa, a college-educated Masai who runs a nonprofit agency that lobbies for pastoralists such as the Masai. "A man will not marry a woman who is not circumcised."
Porokwa agrees with the government's ban of the practice, in which the clitoris is excised in pubescent girls. The challenge, he said, is to persuade Masai to make the coming-of-age rite symbolic and to keep the useful aspects, such as guidance on how to take care of one's family. Otherwise it will continue indefinitely, he predicted, law or no law.
The practice has strong defenders among Masai, including some young men. Paulo Kikondo, 23, left his family's rural home a decade ago and works in Arusha as a night watchman for $1 a day. It is the only job he can find with his second-grade education. A woman spared mutilation "is nothing," he said, and will be spurned by Masai men.
Kikondo also defended promiscuity. He said it is traditional and therefore proper to let a same-age male visitor sleep with one's wife. "No problem," he said, so long as the visitor does not take the wife away.
The phenomenon of multiple concurrent partners has accelerated AIDS' spread across sub-Saharan Africa. But Kikondo declared himself unconcerned: "AIDS cannot get us because we have medicine," namely herbs that he said prevent infection. Told that any doctor would label that dangerous nonsense, he shrugged.
Porokwa shook his head when he heard about Kikondo's comments. Masai, because they seldom have relationships outside their ethnic group, have not been ravaged by HIV/AIDS. In neighboring Kenya, for instance, the HIV rate among Masai is 2.5 percent, half the national average.
But Porokwa said more and more men are moving to urban areas in search of work and are interacting with non-Masai. "It is a very dangerous environment for the Masai," he said. "Once [AIDS] gets there, everybody will be bombed."
Six hours from Arusha by truck, in the heart of rural Masailand, it seems as if time stands still. In the pre-dawn stillness, cowbells clang softly like wind chimes, heralding the start of a new day at one compound, or boma, where a dozen families live.
Soon there is action everywhere. Girls and women, their heads shaven and ears weighed down by pendulous earrings, milk the cows and goats. Parents dress their babies, and families drink morning tea in the soft light. Before the sun rises far over the ridge, young men are leading several hundred head of livestock out to pasture.
The rhythms are ancient and unchanging. This scene unfolds much as it did yesterday, and the day before. It is how inhabitants, particularly the elders, say it should be. They say they like living in the circular homes made of wood frames coated in mud and cow-dung plaster. They don't covet electricity or running water. They like their picturesque location, near a lake and a smoking volcano Masai call the Mountain of God.
Not everyone appreciates this life. Noosotwa Loshipa, 27, ticked off her long list of daily duties, from child-minding and cooking to milking and fetching water. True, she said, young men and boys herd the animals, but the division of labor is unequal. "The men are just loitering. We're keeping quiet, but it's not fair," she said, giggling nervously.
"If a man goes to buy corn flour, the woman carries it on her head. A man is proud, can't carry anything on his head or back." She said her gentle complaints have made no difference. "They keep pressing us down. We are used to it. There is no alternative. We are living here."
About the only concession to modernity that the boma's octogenarian leader seems inclined to make is on education. Schooling is a fraught proposition for Masai, since those who get it may abandon the old ways. But patriarch Lyangiri Sadira, who has four wives and 18 children, is proud that three boys and a girl are in high school. He insists it is possible - maybe vital - to blend deep-set ways with modern knowledge.
"It's better to remain like this," he said, "but I need to know what is happening in the world. If you have your thousand cattle and you are educated, you will know how to take care of your cattle and look for markets."
Sadira, wearing the red wrap-like garment that is typical of male attire, said he would like to see the current high school students, the girl included, move on to a university. To an extent, women's roles in bomas like this are set once they finish seventh grade, if they get that far: They are married off, sometimes before the legal age of 14, and begin bearing children.
That was the life Neema Laizer wanted none of growing up in another Masai area. Now 18, she has learned English and finished high school at a boarding school paid for by the Emusoi Center for Pastoralists Girls. After two years of "A-level" courses, she plans to study medicine so she can help her fellow Masai, especially women.
The center, formed in 1999, sponsors 450 girls in various schools. Their families are asked to help with the cost, but some cannot and others will not. The center relies on private donors, many of them American.
Neema and about a hundred other girls spent the recent school holidays on the center's quiet grounds because of the risk that they could get pregnant or be married off if they returned home to the rural areas.
Mary Vertucci, a Maryknoll sister who directs the center, said she hopes that as more boys and girls go further in school, Masai culture will evolve without losing its traditional essence. "My hope is to see girls who have professional training - teaching, say - go back to Masailand and make a positive impact."
Neema, an ebullient young woman with a hearty laugh, shares that goal. "Women have no rights," she said. "They just sit with the children and cook." But she sees glimmers of change. Her father beat her mother so badly for helping her flee four years ago that she needed medical care. But even he turned up at her graduation.
While she managed to escape a life she did not want - forced marriage, early child-bearing, genital mutilation - she knows that others have been less fortunate.
"Many men now are being educated; many girls are being educated as well," she said. "When they go home, they must bring changes."