American woman who claims to be the first female Masai warrior is perpetuating troubling stereotypes for personal gain
The story of Mindy Budgor, a white, middle class American who travelled to Kenya to live amongst the Masai Mara for three months to do charity work, is a troubling narrative for Africans. According to her blog, Budgor went to Kenya to build schools and hospitals before starting her MBA. While in Kenya, she asked the village chief why there were no women warriors. He apparently told her it was because Masai women are not “strong enough or brave enough”.
Inspired by feminism, she sets out to prove that women can become warriors – and ultimately becomes the first female warrior in her “tribe”. Budgor then returns home, attends the University of Chicago and is now putting her business skills to good use by marketing a book about her experiences. Her account, which has been reproduced widely – including in the Guardian, is problematic because it evokes popular narratives in western imaginations that Africans have been battling to redress for years.
The Great Savior
Budgor markets herself as a do-gooder who leaves her job to go and help others in Kenya. Although I don’t doubt that she may have played some role in building schools and hospitals, I would be interested to know more about the work she actually did. Building schools and hospitals requires a lot of energy – particularly whilst training to become a warrior. According to accounts on Masai culture by the Masai Association, becoming a warrior is not that simple. Boys are required to live away from their village for several months, going through different rituals. The suggestion that she was able to do all this in three months should be met with suspicion. It is reminiscent of the many exaggerated claims made about “aid work” in Africa.
In Budgor’s case, she not only becomes a warrior, she becomes a princess as suggested by her book, “Warrior Princess: My Quest to become the First Female Masai Warrior”. She became a princess and a warrior? This is an insult to systems of descent and initiation in Masai culture.
She takes the narrative of the great “white saviour” further by stressing how she is donating a portion of proceeds to non-profit foundations helping women in Kenya preserve their culture (the one she tried to change?). She could have thought of more practical and sustainable work, such as supporting the Masai women entrepreneurs. There are also a number of projects and needs that the Masai Association has identified.
Kenya’s female warriors
Ultimately, Masai women are fighting their own battles for the rights that are important to them. By stealing the spotlight Budgor undermines this work. Dr Kakenya Ntaiya’s essay, “Warrior’s Spirit: The Stories of Four Women from Kenya’s Enduring Tribe” provides us with narratives of such women. There is also further evidence that Budgor’s portrayal of patriarchy amongst the Masai exaggerates the extent of gender inequality. According to the Masai Association, both women and men fight for specific cultural rituals. In fact, all over pre-colonial Africa women were priests, queens, leaders, teachers, doctors and warriors.
Africans and particularly Kenyans have been less then supportive of Budgor’s adventures:
hambaumhlungu writes on Glamour.com
As an African man who became a full professor in an American university in just two weeks, I appreciate Mindy’s struggle. I was visiting the University of ** when I asked a young man named Josh how many African professors there were. Josh, who was a prince in his own suburb in New Jersey, exclaimed: “None, of course. It would be too hard for you Africans.” We must change this, I insisted, and asked what I had to do to become a full professor. “You must shotgun a six-pack and toke on a bong,” he said. “But you can’t do that. You are too weak and will be wasted in no time.” I told my parents I was being sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education to become a professor, then I went to Josh’s dorm room, where I spotted a six-pack. I immediately shotgunned every beer. “Give me a bong now,” I said, amazed at my own audacity. He did so, shocked by my perseverance. I managed to hold in my coughs, although my lungs were bursting. Later I took part in the Saturday night ritual where I danced the “Full Professor Dance”. This is why I sympathise with Mindy and applaud her remarkable book. I look forward to spearing lions with her on the Serengeti soon.
Rarin Ole Sein writes on TMSruge.com
That she is making money off of this! That hurts! No difference between her and the colonialist or the slave traders….in my view she just came to take period! I would like to know if any of her book proceeds go back to the any of the people she used.
Similar sentiments by Kenyan women were shared on the blog Africa is a Country.
Budgor’s tale can be dismissed as one of simple cultural naiveté – but it relies on an underlying narrative of cultural commodification that she is ready to exploit. The idea that anyone can come in to a society, assume their practices, and liberate their women in a few weeks is absurd. It is also insulting to Masai culture, as the analogy by hambaumhlungu highlights. Whilst her experience was somewhat “real”, her initiation was most likely symbolic and one hopes that she recognises it as such.
Lucrative book deal
Lastly, Budgor also needs to be seen as a businesswoman who is out to sell a book to a target audience – the thousands of women just like her who may be inspired to follow in her footsteps with a limitless imagination (Perhaps, some like her may aspire to become the first female president of an African country). She commodifies Masai culture for western consumption and for a lucrative book deal. She also seems oblivious to how her presence and behaviour is disruptive to the community. Where does it leave other female activists who have been working on the ground to make genuine changes in their own culture? Stories like hers do need to be addressed from African perspectives, particularly when highlighting how “do-gooders” profit from African culture and essence are not doing “good” at all.
Sitinga Kachipande is a Masters candidate in Pan African Studies at Syracuse University
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/3171ce3a/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A130Csep0C190Ckenya0Emindy0Ebudgor0Emasai0Emara/story01.htm