California entrepreneur Mindy Budgor was just 27 when she sold off a successful business she had created, netting enough to drive a BMW and shop at Gucci and Prada. Still, she felt hollow and like a failure, and was desperate to find more meaning in life.
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Budgor found it in the unlikeliest of places: the Kenyan wilderness, where she slept on the ground with members of the Maasai tribe, shedding enough of her formerly privileged existence to become the tribe’s first female warrior.
“If you’d told me a year earlier that I’d be deep in the bush, hair knotted from days in the forest, running in the direction of a 1,300-pound [buffalo] that could make short work of me, I’d have told you to get your head examined,” she told Glamour in an October-issue story about her new memoir, “Warrior Princess.” “Yet there I was. And I’d never been more sure I was in the right place.”
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So how did a nice Jewish girl from Santa Barbara—one who loved manis and pedis and warm croissants, and whose biggest travel adventure up to that point had been a cruise to Alaska, according to the Guardian—wind up in such a place?
It all started with Budgor’s decision to take a friend’s advice: She would shake up her comfortable life and embark upon a tough humanitarian mission to Kenya, where she’d assist in building a health clinic in a Kenyan game reserve.
During her two weeks there, she learned much about the seminomadic Maasai tribe through conversations with Winston, a local chief who spoke fluent English. He told her about the tribe’s brave warriors—how they ate raw meat, fended off lions and buffaloes, protected their community with spears and swords, and were basically fearless.
Budgor asked if women could be warriors and was told, unequivocally, no, because “women aren't strong enough or brave enough to do it.”
That answer, as Budgor explained in her Guardian essay, made her furious. “I can take no for an answer if there's a good reason, but the idea that women couldn't be warriors just because they weren't men wasn't sitting well with me,” she wrote. “Winston and I made a deal that if I left my stilettos behind, he would take me through the traditional rites of passage to become a warrior.”
She flew back to California to prepare for her incredible opportunity — one that a Maasai woman implored upon her not to squander. It was then, Budgor explains, that she realized the challenge went beyond the personal.
“Maasai women are extraordinarily strong: they build homes, chop trees for firewood, walk seven hours a day to fetch water,” she explained in the Guardian. “But they are not treated as equals. I knew that the warriors had the utmost respect in the tribe and that they were given greater access to education and not married off when they were 12. I believed that providing women with the right to become warriors would broaden the tribe's perspective of their personal power, which could only help them fight to maintain their customs.”
After working with a personal trainer for six weeks in California to get in shape for her upcoming challenge, Budgor, along with a similarly adventurous friend, returned to Winston. He reneged on his offer, but the determined women found their way to a more open-minded warrior named Lanet, in Nairobi, who agreed to take them on.
They headed into the African bush with essentials: tartan sheets for clothing, metal tips for spears and, for Budgor, a bottle of Chanel Dragon red nail polish (“It just made me feel fierce,” she explained) and a pair of pearl earrings to remind her of home.
Lanet and six other warriors then led them through a month of surreal tasks that were both physically and mentally challenging: sleeping on the ground in a communal bed of leaves and branches, going days without food, getting bloody blisters on her hands as she practiced spear-hunting skills, and, incredibly, suffocating a goat to death and drinking its warm blood (which Budgor vomited up immediately).
“The entire time I never put a brush through my hair. I’d wash myself with the same water cows and buffalo used, yet I felt beautiful,” she told Glamour. “I felt strong. I felt proud.”
In a final test of bravery, Budgor speared a massive buffalo, inspiring cheers from her warrior trainers. She had passed, and was deemed a warrior, and succeeded in changing the Maasai gender policy; this year, 12 girls in the village she had been in will go through the warrior training.
Back in the U.S., Budgor went back to her life of luxury, but was forever changed. “I wasn’t the same girl who’d gone into the bush,” she said.
She went on to graduate from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, currently lives in New York, and has not stopped pushing herself. In August, Budgor ran a half marathon in Canada, posting these words of wisdom on her Facebook page in the days leading up to the race: “Warrior tip: Keep going.”
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