A new book by and about the supposed first female Maasai warrior is stirring up controversy.
Mindy Budgor is a Gucci-wearing, MBA-toting Californian who is promoting this book that tells of her attempt to ‘enlighten’ a Kenyan Maasai community by showing them not only men can be warriors.
A blurb you won’t read on the book jacket: Here’s the story of another young white American disappointed with her materialistic life who finds strength and meaning by trying to force her world view on [insert developing country here].
As quickly as the story came out a strong backlash across the blogosphere decried Mindy’s exploitation of the Maasai and her “white savior complex.” Katie J.M. Baker described the book as, “like The Help, but with spears and punchy tribal prints” in Jezebel. Others aired their criticisms on Twitter.
The story begins with Mindy leaving her marketing job and going to Kenya to do aid work for a few months before attending business school. She went to build a clinic in the Masai Mara National Reserve.
When the Maasai warriors told her that women were unable to be warriors she took on the challenge. Mindy went home, trained, got Under Armour to sponsor her and went back to become a warrior. All of this is told in her new book, Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior.
I looked at those stone-faced, lean-bodied men and was terrified. Lanet sensed my trepidation. “I know you’re scared,” he said. “But these people have chosen to be with you. You must accept them as your family, or this is not going to work.” I thought of Faith and the promise I had made, and I told Lanet I would learn to trust them, whatever it took.
She argues in her Guardian piece that raising women’s rights is an issue that is important, but does not force modernization so that the “integrity of the tribe is not lost.” Elevating women to the level of Maasai warrior provides them better access to power, she continues. By proving that a woman can be a Maasai warrior, Mindy believes that the Maasai women will follow in her steps.
While making this change is not unanimously accepted by men and women in the tribe, the vast majority believe steps towards equality will help sustain the culture in the long term, and one of those steps is allowing women to become warriors. And I am so proud to say that there are at least 20 girls in Loita who are ready to be part of the next warrior age set.
Letters shared by Budgor on her website show a correspondence between her and Kevin Plank, founder of the sportswear brand Under Armour. She describes what she is doing and her love of Under Armour. Even telling Plank that she is touting its benefits to people she meets.
The book itself is littered with references to the brand. “Machiavell Mindy,” as she refers to herself, turns on her “business brain” to figure out how to market Under Armour for women. She does not hear back from Plank, but that does not stop her from describing how she wants to make the trip a marketing opportunity all the while talking about how great the brand is during her adventures.
White people in development should actively protest against this kind of saviourist narrative being popularised in the media. Really.
— Spectra Speaks (@spectraspeaks) September 13, 2013
Dissenters say that Budgor has it wrong. It is up to the women within the Maasai community to decide whether or not they want to be warriors, not an American.
“As far as I know Maasai women don’t become warriors and don’t want to be warriors But if they want to and choose to…they don’t need an ‘outsider’ to come fight their fight for them. We can fight our own battles ourselves thank you! and ps: we are and continue to in ways that are respectful to our culture and our traditions,” wrote Rarin Ole Sein in a Facebook discussion.
Questions are raised as to the actual impact of Budgor’s exercise. Sitinga Kachipande took issue with Budgor’s claim that her activities over only a few weeks time had an actual impact.
Other commentators said that it takes years to become a true Maasai warrior, not a matter of a few weeks. Leah, a Maasai woman, compared Budgor’s claims to her saying she was the first female NFL player after completing two weeks of training camp. That both helps explain what might keep women from pursuing the status within the tribe and how Budgor did less than she says.
“The paradigms of such women need to be challenged because of their active role in propagating stereotypes to larger audiences. The idea that anyone can just come in to a society, assume their practices, and liberate their women in a few weeks is absurd,” wrote Kachipande in Africa on the Blog.
Mindy benefits from the sales of her book. Under Armour got some free marketing to its female customers. The Maasai women remain in their communities with little evidence that anything changed.