Mindy Budgor, a 27 year old American girl, has been making headlines recently by claiming to be the first female Maasai warrior. In an interview in Glamour magazine, she described her experience in the Kenyan bush, in which she received one month’s worth of Maasai training. Her intent has been to raise awareness about gender equality within Maasai culture, but instead, Budgor has commodified and bedazzled all that the Maasai people hold dear. Her account must be examined more critically in order to reveal its true implications for the Maasai and, by extension, Africans as a whole.
While waiting to hear back from the top American business schools to which she had applied, Budgor decided to volunteer at a clinic in the Maasai Mara, and became close to a Maasai chief she was working with. Through him, Budgor learned about the Maasai warriors, who are known for their strength and bravery. She was appalled to hear that women could not be warriors because they are not seen as strong or brave enough. Upon hearing this, Budgor decided to evolve her soul-searching mission into one that would work towards improving equality for women in the developing world. Bizarrely, she decided that the most effective way to do this was to train to be a Maasai warrior herself.
Mission in mind, Budgor headed back to California to work with a personal trainer and get into shape. With a friend in tow, she returned to Kenya to achieve her newfound goal; save the Massai woman by being a role model they could look up to and emulate.
Budgor describes her weeks in the wild, in which she had to live off the land and perform physically straining tasks – all while keeping a fresh manicure.
There are several problems with Budgor’s story and the publicity she’s gaining from it which perfectly encapsulate the problems African countries have come to face when volunteers visit. Firstly, there is the narrative of the educated forward thinking American saving under-privileged Africans from themselves.
Budgor also explained the difficult situation threatening the Maasai recently: the Kenyan government had seized parts of their land, and there have also been periods of drought which have had detrimental effects on the community. Budgor, devastated by these realities as any educated, good-hearted person would be, decided that she must save the Maasai. She thought that if women were incorporated into the Warrior culture of the Maasai, it would give them more of a voice, and lead to a brighter future for the entire tribe. While this is not an unreasonable idea, Budgor completely disregarded the fact that African women themselves had been trying to change their culture from within, and instead embarked on a journey to effect monumental societal change. This completely undermined the integrity of her mission, since the superficial way by which she approached the problem of gender inequality in Maasai culture prevented her from ever affecting lasting change.
The second issue is the credibility of her claims themselves. It takes Maasai men 15 to 20 years to be considered warriors, and it is arguably the most essential component of the Warrior identity. Budgor, in completing her training in a month, trivialized one of the most important aspects of Maasai culture. Her chief pronounced her a warrior after a mere 31 days in the bush. In her recount she includes that men in the tribe were angered by this because she was a woman, but more likely is that it was because she’s not Maasai.
Budgor asserts a patriarchal notion of strength and independence by assuming that Maasai women are perceived as weak within their tribes because they cannot be warriors. Kakenya Emily Ntaiya’s paper Warrior’s Spirit: The Stories of Four Women from Kenya’s Enduring Tribe, has been referred to continuously in the debate surrounding Budgor. Maasai women, according to Ntaiya’s argument, do not need to hold spears and kill lions to play an important role in their communities. Budgor’s simplistic view of equality belittles the women who are fighting the battle to gain education for girls and work towards dealing with true societal issues, such as ending child marriage. But unfortunately, this is something that a person with little knowledge Maasai culture would not understand. The culture of the Maasai tribe is one with communal basis in which the warriors protect the village and further their communities as their role is to serve them. However, Budgor’s mission is completely one for personal gain and so disregards this essential aspect of their culture and purpose.
Budgor is attempting to change Maasai culture under a guise of female empowerment that they have not necessarily asked for. As a “forward-thinking” Westerner, she makes the assumption that traditional culture is automatically something that is holding the tribe back from progress and survival – she attributes their hardships mentioned above to this “lack of progress”. The western concept of progress attributes great importance to equality, rather than equity or role specification. Though education for both girls and boys is generally seen as a good thing, one need not go so far as to claim that women have to be warriors to achieve a place in their community. Simplifying the struggle to “what a man can do, a woman can do” is not a way forward. Beyond the issue of Budgor as a Maasai warrior, she calls them her tribe. Spending a few weeks with a tribe does not make them “hers”, and to insinuate otherwise is simply offensive to the Maasai. Tribe culture may not be something that Budgor is familiar with coming from America, but it is an essential part of many people’s identities in Kenya and to belittle that is incredibly disrespectful for the institutions and culture of the tribe. This is further evidence that Budgor’s mission was not a mission of hope but an ill-conceived attempt to understand and profit from a culture under the guise of charity. The general simplification of the culture, their problems and concepts of women empowerment is generally insulting and not only to the Maasai.
Another detail that makes Budgor’s story a complete fallacy is that she stands to profit financially from her experience. Her book, Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior came out a few weeks ago, and she has been interviewed by magazines in an effort to generate media buzz. While remembering the fact that she only went to Kenya in the first place because she was having a quarter-life crisis, one can infer that her motives are probably not entirely altruistic.
Budgor choosing to go to Kenya on a this trip in the first place is no surprising. As a widely visited tourist destination, it also hosts many volunteer trips for young people; a wide range of activities are possible, from building schools to helping wild animals. Within Africa, it is a relatively developed country, and Nairobi is a comfortable location for tourists, with moderate weather and beautiful scenery. It is no surprise that people visit this country. The fact that it still struggles with the social, economic and political problems of a developing country makes it the perfect volunteer retreat.
This story is reminiscent of the Kony 2012 fiasco, and Africans are clearly no longer interested in that. In both cases, the narrative of privileged Americans “raising awareness” about an issue becomes a publicity stunt rather than an effective catalyst for change. It is doubtful that Budgor’s experience will do much to improve the status of girls in the Maasai tribe.
The most troubling point about Budgor’s adventure is that it has become increasingly common in the globalized world. She is not the first American upper-middle class girl to come to Africa and hope to make a difference while engaging in self-fulfillment and soul-searching. However, she did something that is offensive to the Maasai culture specifically, and her actions, like those of her peers, only serve to further delegitimize the ability of Kenyans to lead themselves.