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Warrior Princess, A Warning

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When Mindy Budgor, a prospective MBA student, decided to go to Kenya as a volunteer to build a school for the Maasai, she had no idea where this choice would ultimately lead her. As Mindy helped build the school, she discovered that Maasai women were not allowed to become moran, or warriors, a reality that disturbed her. But she also was told that she could train to become a Maasai moran, and she took these words to heart, returning to the USA, training physically for the process, then going back to Kenya for the vigorous Maasai warrior training she thought she’d been promised – only to discover that the offer wasn’t serious.

Mindy’s book Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior is her memoir about how she finally found a group of Maasai (the Loita Maasai) to take her in for three months of warrior training, resulting, according to her, in her becoming a moran. She explains in her memoir that her goal was to empower Maasai women through this process, showing them that they too could become warriors. It became evident in the book that another goal was to leverage herself in the business world by convincing Under Armour to sponsor her warrior training adventure. A review of Budgor’s book can be found in Voices for Biodiversity.

If it’s true that there is no such thing as bad press, then Mindy scored big. Warrior Princess became a popular story in women’s magazines while simultaneously being vilified by the politically and culturally correct — including some Maasai. However, in my opinion, both the positive and negative reactions to the book miss the mark entirely.

I decided to read Warrior Princess for several reasons. First, Mindy and I had some things in common. She trained for three months to become a moran with the same group of Maasai with whom I had spent three weeks back in the late 1980s. Mindy lived with the tribe during her warrior training. I had attended a life-changing circumcision ceremony with them. Mindy was 27 years old. I was 20 years old. We were both young and naïve.

Futhermore, I had managed to track down an old Maasai friend from those days through the internet back around 2005. I had asked him how things were now among his people, the Loita Maasai, who lived near the Naimina Enkyio Forest (the Forest of the Lost Child), a place that had been pristine when I had visited it in 1980. My friend was around my age now (in his mid-fifties). He said that life had changed a great deal. There were problems: too many people, poaching, and deforestation due to the need for land to farm and trees for fuel. Worse, he explained, over the years the Maasai had begun to farm to supplement their cattle herding, because there wasn’t enough land to live off cattle herding alone anymore. The government was pushing them to give up their traditional ways. And he had 21 children whom he was finding it difficult to feed, house and educate. Then there were the costs of the circumcision ceremonies. Life was better many years ago, when I had visited.

Yet another reason I chose to read Warrior Princess was because Joyce Poole, Director of ElephantVoices introduced me in 2013 by email to Alfred Mepukori, a Loita Maasai youth. Alfred was close to the same age that I had been when visiting the Maasai so many years ago. He went on to write a two-part article for Voices for Biodiversity: “My Life in the Naimina Enkiyio Forest Part 1 and Part 2.” The article won Alfred first prize in a creative writing competition at the University of Narok. I consider it to be one of the best articles published in Voices for Biodiversity to this day. 

Warring reviews made me want to avoid the book Warrior Princess all together. There was a spitefully politically correct review from The Guardian and a piece in Glamour made Mindy appear, well, glamourous. But I was eventually too curious not to read the book. Why, I asked myself, did Warrior Princess elicit such varied reactions? What was the hidden story that people were unknowingly reacting to? I felt as if I was in the Forest of the Lost Child again myself with game trails crisscrossing the forest floor, all leading back to my youthful sojourn among the Loita Maasai.

First of all, Warrior Princess is a funny book — yes, much of it is silly and the writing is hackneyed, but if you can’t find a soft spot for the bumbling Mindy and her youthful enthusiasm and narcissism, you’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be young and to think that, of course, you can make a difference. Mindy may have been naïve, but her heart was in the right place. Oddly, though, none of the reviewers, negative or positive, seemed to catch the buried secret within the book — the part of the book that did scare me: It was a mirror reflecting back our new global materialism and money-obsessed monoculture. Mindy wasn’t the problem, I wanted to tell The Guardian; the culture we live in is the problem, a culture that did not exist when I first visited the Loita Maasai.

People in general, and prospective MBA students such as Mindy in particular, have been immersed in a culture that worships business, competition, and the supposedly fruitful exercise of spending one’s life making and accruing money. To become successful nowadays means to either become a celebrity or to become rich. No one wants to be Gandhi. Everyone wants to be Gatsby. Mindy is a “product” (and I use the word deliberately) of our current global culture.

After her Maasai experience, Mindy went on to attend the University of Chicago’s MBA program. It is the Mindys of our brave new corporate-led world who will have far more social and fiscal power than the scientists, journalists, conservationists, policymakers, and do-gooders like myself who busy ourselves trying to protect biodiversity. We live in a global culture where money talks and where Under Amour, whom Mindy consistently  begged for sponsorship funds for her Maasai adventure, has vast power. Underwear has become mightier than the Maasai in our upside down system of values. Under Armour is a recognized brand. And what’s the Sixth Extinction anyway? Mindy unknowingly represents and embraces the very values that are killing off other species: consumerism, self-absorption, and the inability to question the economic and cultural status quo.

In her memoir, Mindy reveals herself to be clever and ambitious, but, like many business people, Mindy isn’t particularly deep. Unwittingly, her book becomes an anthropological essay on what is wrong with the mentality of well-meaning business people today the world over. She just does not grasp how important it is to jettison our economic system with its pro-consumer and pro-population growth bias. And despite living for three months in the bush, she doesn’t appear to relate to nature and other species, although she does notice that time slows down. That Mindy could live with a group of Maasai morani in a gallery forest and not come away with a deep love of that forest and its biodiversity speaks to the fact that for much of humanity now our relationship with nature is broken. How will we save the ecosystems that support us all when we can’t see a forest as our home and its inhabitants as our fellow creatures? 

The two leading causes of biodiversity loss are over-consumption and over-population. Mindy comes from a global economic system that has pushed over-consumption into an ugly art form. On the other hand, the Maasai, the men often taking multiple wives, have experienced a population explosion that has negatively affected their people’s relationship to the forest. Mindy is right to point out that Maasai women often lack access to education and reproductive healthcare including birth control. Maasai women do live in a patriarchal culture. All is not perfect among indigenous people, wishful thinking aside. 

If I were teaching a course in human ecology, I’d have my students read this book, because beneath its surface lurks a frightening subtext. Our global economic system is out of control. It’s driven by consumption, brand names, and corporations that do not value anything beyond their own expansion. Our economic system is insidiously dangerous to non-human species and perhaps ultimately to our own. Furthermore, there is no golden indigenous past of traditional knowledge and practices that will save us. Our human populations are too large now to live the old ways. That past is gone. Women do need to be empowered. We do need fewer people on the planet, which means not only slowing population growth, but also reducing population. 

Corporations are fond of blaring that they “care.” Mindy “cares.” The Maasai “care.” Everyone cares. The problem is that caring won’t provide a solution to biodiversity loss. Caring alone won’t save ecosystems. A human being has to actually do something, usually give up something, to help other species. A human has to buy less. A human has to not have that additional child that is so desired. A human has to give up something — for other species.

No one wants to talk about giving up something. The era of small is beautiful is over. We’ve convinced ourselves we can have it all, and having it all means having stuff and having children, rather than letting the Naimina Enkyio Forest have a beautiful healthy ecosystem. Human needs more than ever supersede the needs of other species.

And something else is afoot. The former Good Guys, the environmental NGOs, are now hiring financiers to run their organizations. For example, Mark Tercek, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, was hired by the board of the Nature Conservancy to be the organization’s CEO. Mindy probably sensed this in her MBA bones. It’s not about the Forest of the Lost Child, not really. It’s not about the Maasai, or Maasai women, or Maasai morani, really. It’s not even about Mindy, really. It’s about marketing. When Goldman Sachs takes over the hallowed halls of the environmental movement, Mindy’s cry to Under Armour for sponsorship funding becomes far less absurd. Her cries to the corporate gods suddenly make a great deal of sense. For that is where the power lies. From the mouths of babes comes this new truth. And it is frightening.

Read Sarah Abdelrahim’s review of Warrior Princess

The Loita Hills. (c) 2015 Ninara available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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