In early September, Mindy Budgor, a well-off twentysomething from Southern California, wrote an intriguing memoir — "Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior," about her experience living with a tribe in Africa and becoming its first woman warrior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for the media coverage—and storm of criticisms—to come rolling in.
A female member of the Maasai tribe, blogging for The Huffington Post, was suspicious of Budgor's ability to buck the system in a matter of months. Africa Is a Country, meanwhile, accused Budgor of going to Kenya as part of a PR campaign for a sportswear company. And many of the nearly 3,000 comments Yahoo Shine's story about Budgor received were negative, calling for a boycott of her book, accusing her of exploiting the Maasai tribe, and charging that her return to the comforts of home negated her entire warrior-princess claim.
This week, Budgor has decided to meet the criticisms head-on with the following post.
Over the past few weeks, my book, "Warrior Princess," has ignited thousands of comments and questions about my journey with the Maasai — and some about my motivation and character. There have been messages of thanks from girls in far-away places, as well as accusations by those who see my exploration as exploitation. Simply stated, I did not intend, nor do I now intend, to upset people or be insensitive to a culture that I love. I was given a challenge and chronicled that experience in hopes of inspiring dialogue about tradition, acceptance, and, ultimately, empowerment of the human spirit. My goal with this post is not to sway the outrage of some or temper the hopes of others, but merely to offer deeper context with regards to my personal experience within the broader conversation of culture, tradition, and perception of what is right and wrong.
I never intended to fall in love with Africa, nor find myself living among the Maasai. But I did and I have. During my first trip to Kenya, as a volunteer in a women's clinic, I met an inspiring man named Winston. This Maasai warrior explained the rites of passage to become a warrior, a path closed to women because we were not strong enough or brave enough, but one I could try to master. This conjured up feelings of my own inadequacies, physical limitations, and lack of confidence in the unknown. Perhaps I would have forgotten about Winston's words if I hadn't met a Maasai woman named Faith later that day. She told me that women in her tribe have wanted the right to become warriors for generations. Faith explained that women longed to receive this status, and, in turn,ultimate respect in the tribe. She took the offer seriously and encouraged me to understand its significance.
I later returned to Kenya with the intent of going through the warrior rites of passage, albeit an adapted version for an interested outsider. Winston refused to guide me through them — not because of concern about the dangers of the land and the animals, but because he felt that his tribe would not accept me. Where some might have given up, I did not. I come from a family of Holocaust survivors and was taught at a very young age that it is only when you dig deep, find your passion, and challenge yourself that you truly grow as a human.
I met another Maasai warrior, Lanet Danson Lekuroun, who recruited six other Maasai males to join him in Loita (a wilderness area that translates to "the forest of the lost child"). Collectively they decided to test cultural norms by allowing me, along with another woman, to go through the rites of passage to become a warrior. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay in Kenya; I didn’t know if I was going to end up a warrior; and I surely didn’t know if I was going to survive, but I followed through because it was important to me.
I lived in the bush for three months with these wonderful, caring, brave men. We didn't speak the same language and we didn't come from similar backgrounds, but we bore a mutual respect that was deepened by shared experiences. At the end of this time, I was inducted into the ilaisarr clan by the elders in Loita, who recognized me as the first female warrior. There were also many discussions among the tribe’s elders about whether allowing girls to become warriors was in their best interest. Some of these conversations I listened in on, with Lanet translating as best as possible. In the end, a group of elders decided to take it upon themselves to work to allow girls the right to become warriors because they believed it was in the best interest of the preservation of the culture. Today they are working to allow 20 Maasai girls in Loita to be part of the next warrior class.
My experience with the Maasai was transformative. I was pushed in my physical and mental capacity on a daily basis, despite wanting to wave the white flag on countless occasions. It seemed to me that the Maasai didn’t care that I was white, or Jewish, or came from a family of financial means.
My intention in sharing my story was not to stir up controversy – and surely not anger – but to build awareness for the tribe and show that even the least auspicious person can allow herself or himself the freedom to explore other perspectives. I am surprised by the vitriol and hurtful commentary about my motivations, which remains positive and hopeful: to encourage people to find their passions, truly listen and collaborate with others, and to take even one step forward to fight for what is in your heart.
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