Mindy Budgor spent three months in training with Kenya’s Maasai tribe, fleeing rampaging elephants, drinking fresh, warm goat blood, and learning how to live at the mercy of the elements. All this was supposed to toughen her up so she could trek for days, evade wild animals and survive on only what she killed herself. But it didn’t quite prepare her for the brutality of the response to her book about becoming “the first white, female, Jewish, American, Maasai warrior.”
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Warrior Princess – a pun, she says, on her self-avowed JAP status – relates how, as an aimless 27-year-old from Santa Barbara, California, she travels to Kenya on a two-week volunteering trip, where she encounters Maasai warriors for the first time.
Inspired by their fearless confidence and sense of identity, as well as turned on by their “perfectly chiselled” physiques, Budgor, now 32, is personally offended when Winston, a tribal chief, tells her, “Women aren’t strong enough or brave enough to do the work we do.”
That, to Budgor, is the equivalent of a direct challenge - part of the same trajectory of formative traumas that saw her deemed too fat to be a figure skater and the wrong gender to be an ice-hockey player.
She becomes determined to prove him wrong and return to Kenya to become a warrior herself.
Her book is an entertaining if staggeringly unrestrained gallop through her time with a group of Maasai warriors from the Loita region, led by Lanet, a 25-year-old university educated Maasai warrior who is sympathetic to her mission. (“Warrior Princess: My Quest To Become The First Female Maasai Warrior,” published by Murdoch Books, August 2013)
Rocking up with zero knowledge of tribal practices or cultural values, she spends her time with the Maasai, a semi-nomadic ethnic group located in Kenya and northern Tanzania, in an almost constant state of shock. The patriarchal traditions of the Maasai, whose lifestyle centers on their livestock – their religion tells them that god gave them all the cattle on earth – are incomprehensible to Budgor.
“This is absolutely the most revolting thing I have ever done,” she squeaks as she puts her finger in lukewarm lion dung to assess how far away the beasts might be.
She nearly gets killed because she refuses to believe that cute, cuddly hippos could actually be the most dangerous animals in Africa and seems astonished that life in the bush doesn’t come with regular hot showers or medium-rare burgers.
“L’chaim,”she chirrups as she chokes down her first morsel of raw goat’s kidney, a delicacy among the warriors; the traditional Maasai diet centers on raw milk, raw blood and raw meat.
Much of the book is taken up with her response to grueling physical difficulties. Sleeping under the stars with only her traditional olkarasha cloth for cover, walking for miles to chop firewood until her hands bleed and eating nothing but goat they have suffocated to death in the traditional Maasai style. “Pure Atkins,” she notes. “My Mom would have been proud.”
Girls marry in their early teens to much older men who have completed their warrior training, which divides their generation into 15-year age sets.
Budgor is oblivious to any disturbingly lascivious undertones to her constant references to the Maasai warriors’ “buns of steel” and rippling muscles. After watching them dance and sing, she muses, “These guys must be in heat...This must be their mating call.”
Finally, after only a matter of weeks – as opposed to training which can take the better part of a decade, including a particularly gruesome circumcision that involves “skinning” the penis with a sword – Budgor is declared a warrior by her fellow campers.
Unsurprisingly, the book and its attendant media coverage has elicited some furious comments, not least from Kenyan women themselves.
“We have Maasai women members of parliament, doctors, lawyers, professors, civil servants, teachers, nurses, business owners etc,” fumed one online poster. “But of course, we don’t exist in the eyes of fools like this Mindy woman whose sole purpose always appears to be to fetishize Maasai men (our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands) in one way or another.”
“It’s like me coming to America and claiming I am the first female football player because I spent two weeks at training camp!” commented another.
Budgor is more than a little hurt that not everyone appreciates the inspirational nature of her story.
“The point of the book was to show my adventure and to educate people on the Maasai tribe and show the importance of the way the tribe lives and how we can learn from them,” she insists. “It’s a fun adventure that also allows people to take the first step which turns them on to find their passion.”
Her world view, she says, is a product of a feisty, highly-motivated Jewish family. One set of grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and Budgor’s own father was born in a displacement camp and became a firm believer in “hard work, no cutting corners, following the chain of command, and the drive to survive,” she writes. This resulted in a very strong ethos of “follow through on what you say you’re going to do,” as she puts it.
It also means Budgor felt besieged by all the attendant pressures of life as a middle-class Jewish woman - go to college, find a husband and keep your figure. So she feels she can identify with the expectations put on Maasai women in traditional culture, and empower them too with this particular adventure.
She insists that the idea itself came from an encounter with a Maasai woman named Faith, who told her, “For many years women in my tribe have been trying to become warriors. If you have the chance to show girls, boys, women and men that a woman can be a warrior, then you must do this.”
“My motivation came from speaking to a Maasai woman, and were backed up by a number of people in Loita,” she says. “I don’t have any regrets with the way I tackled it. I was guided by five Maasai warriors; I didn’t invent it myself.”
Budgor means well, but she’s clearly a product of an American generation so brimful with the ideology of self-empowerment that it blinds them to some of the more complex realities. She glosses over perhaps less savory sides of Maasai life – female genital mutilation, for instance, which although now illegal in Kenya and being phased out by some sections of the Maasai still features in tribal lore. And there’s no thought to how the introduction of a female warrior class might impact on a hugely complex culture fighting for its survival in modern Kenya.
As to allegations she paid her group of warriors a handsome sum to provide her with what critics sneer at as a slightly more exotic backpacker’s experience, she is emphatic that no money exchanged hands.
Her former guide in the ways of the warrior, Lanet - who she says she still speaks to at least once a fortnight – really believed in her quest, Budgor insists, although he too is now figuring out how to respond to the onslaught of criticism. “He feels people are calling him and his tribe idiots,” she adds.
Budgor has now finished business school and is job hunting in New York. She’s also building an organization related to female empowerment and self-esteem. But she is proud to say that her Kenyan adventures are not over. Next March, she is returning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of 20 girls from Loita who, she says, all want to join the next warrior class. When that will be, though, she’s not sure.