Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior was either adored or berated, depending on the audience. Women’s magazines loved the book. Others disliked it, claiming no white woman had the right to state she had become a female Maasai warrior. However, even if the actions of author Mindy Budgor, the “first female Maasai warrior” were misguided, she ended up learning more than she bargained for during her quest. Not knowing much about the Maasai at first, she resolved to make a statement to the tribe’s women: that they could become warriors, too, but without first ascertaining whether or not there were any Maasai women who wanted to make the transition. Her experiences seem to demonstrate that, at the very least, her perspectives were broadened when she observed the Maasai’s dependence on, and complete respect for the land surrounding them.
Mindy Budgor had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. She grew up in a Jewish urban society that valued wealth and her education may have sealed this perspective. After college, she settled into a comfortable corporate job in Chicago, but she was soon itching for something new. At 27 years old, she quit her job, moved back to California where her parents lived, and applied to a number of MBA programs.
Realizing that the admissions process would take some time, Bugdor decided to visit Kenya as a volunteer, building a school in an area where the local Maasai people dwelt. A few warriors were assigned to lead her group of volunteers, and they made a strong impression on her. Budgor asked her guide, Winston, how many female Maasai warriors there were. Winston replied that there were none. “Women aren’t strong or brave enough to do the work we do,” he asserted.
Budgor writes that she instantly felt the need to prove that women were indeed capable of becoming warriors (known as morani), and vowed to return to Kenya to do so. Once back in California, she hired a personal trainer and spent a few months getting in shape.
When Budgor returned to Kenya, she completed what she describes as rigorous training with Loita Maasai warriors, and afterward was granted the title of Maasai warrior. While this training reportedly takes many years, Budgor writes that she was proclaimed a warrior in just three months, which raised the ire of many of her critics.
Budgor’s account of her experiences was met with a great deal of hostility from some Maasai, and from others who felt she was exploiting Maasai culture. Many people, some of them Maasai women, spoke out against Budgor’s perpetuation of the notion of “white saviorism,” criticizing her attempts to change the Maasai culture and “save” Maasai women who had not asked to be saved.
No matter what her motives, the narrative that Budgor presents demonstrates that the Maasai community members she spent time with taught her far more than she planned to “teach” them. While some of Budgor’s impressions of the Maasai warriors she encounters are crass, Budgor’s story does give an interesting glimpse into the life of a Maasai warrior—albeit from the eyes of a self-proclaimed princess who must forego her designer stilettos for a few months of training in the remote bush. Budgor’s training requires her to become immersed in the Maasai way of life for seven weeks and to learn about the wildlife that the Maasai share the land with. She clearly experienced a radically new perspective, but also had difficulty assimilating it.
The memoir doesn't have a lot to do with biodiversity, but it does reveal the Maasai's connection to nature and the myriad of species with whom they interact. Budgor explains that the warriors who conducted her training had a very specific and in-depth knowledge about the land. For example, she describes the Maasai’s knowledge of how to put together an exact concoction to cure common ailments. There are a number of instances in the book that show how the Maasai use their knowledge of surrounding wildlife for survival, which sometimes entailed doing things that were previously unthinkable from Budgor’s standpoint. At one point, one of the warriors asks Budgor to test the temperature of lion scat with her finger to get a sense of how far away the lion is, and therefore how imminent a danger it poses.
Budgor was particularly struck by her adoptive community’s resourcefulness, their respect for every part of nature and their acknowledgement that resources are scarce. She emphasized how they did not waste any part of a goat that was slaughtered. “There wasn’t even a hair left that wasn’t being utilized,” she said during our interview. “It shows their complete respect for every little bit and piece of our planet.” She was also impressed by their ability to read the landscape and the species dwelling in it, based upon an animal's call or a certain smell. This taught her how to exist in the moment. “It was very hard for me for a while. In the beginning, I just didn’t get it. It took me a while to get in tune enough to even recognize one percent of what they are able to do.”
Mindy’s impression after her ordeal is that women could become warriors if only their culture would let them. Of course, the missing question is, do Maasai women want to become warriors? Budgor doesn’t see the need to address that, recognizing, as she said in our interview, that her experience was about something deeper. “It’s not about just being a warrior, it’s about being Maasai,” explained Budgor.“It’s about being at one with the land and the animals.” Romantic? Absolutely. Has she considered that the women are equally Maasai? It seems not. But that’s who Mindy is, a young 27-year-old woman whose heart, if not her intellect, is in the right place.
Critics have accused Budgor of taking advantage of the Maasai and using her experience to make a profit. Budgor claims that she hasn’t made any money from the book, and that most of the proceeds have gone to the Africa Schools of Kenya charity, which builds schools and runs programs for the Maasai people.
At the end of our interview, Budgor said, “This is the experience I had. And I ask people to just take it at that.”
If you take her book for what it is, nothing more than her reflections on her experience, you might have a good laugh, or you might become indignant. Either way, if you read between the lines, you will also realize that no matter her intentions, Budgor learned more than she expected about a culture that respects and values nature, and this ultimately impacted her own outlook on life.
If you wish to read more about the Loita Maasai perspective about life, read My life in the Naimina Enkiyio Forest, written by Loita Maasai, Alfred Mepukori.
Read Tara Waters Lumpkin's review of Warrior Princess.
All images are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of Maasai Tribesmen. (c) 2011 Anita Ritenour available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and The Loita Hills. (c) 2015 Ninara available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.