The story of Mindy Budgor, a White middle class American that travels to Kenya to live amongst the Masaais for three months to do charity work is a is a troubling narrative for Africans. According to the narrative on her blog, Budgor goes to Kenya in order to build schools and hospitals prior to starting her MBA. While in Kenya, she asks the village chief why there were no women warriors. According to Budgor, he responds to her that it was because Masaai women were not “strong enough or brave enough.” Inspired by a feminist instinct, she sets out to prove to the men that that women could become warriors – she ultimately becomes the first female warrior in her “tribe”. Budgor then returns home, attends the University of Chicago and is now putting her MBA skills to good use by marketing a book about her experience. Her accounts are problematic because they evoke popular narratives about Africa in Western imagination that Africans have been battling to redress over the past few years.
The Great Savior
The AID Narrative – Budgor markets herself as a do-gooder who quits her job to go and do volunteer work in Kenya – she goes to build schools and hospitals. Although I don’t doubt that she may have played some type of role in building schools and hospitals, I would be interested to know more about the actual work she did there seeing that building schools and hospitals requires a lot of energy – particularly whilst training to become a warrior at the same time. According to accounts on Masaai culture by the Masaai Association, becoming a warrior is not that simple. It requires Masaai boys live away from their village and go through other rituals for several months to prepare for this. The idea that she was able to do this in three months should be met with suspicion. It is reminiscent of the many exaggerated or false claims that some westerners feel entitled to make about the level of their accomplishments, feats, or “aid work” in Africa for self-promotion. Although she did go through some similar experiences that the Masaai men go through, there is evidence from her narrative that they were given special treatment during this process. In her case, she not only becomes a Warrior, she becomes a Princess as well as suggested by her book title, “Warrior Princess: My Quest to become the First Female Masaai Warrior”. She became a Princess and a Warrior? This is an insult to systems of decent and initiation in Masaai culture.
She takes the narrative of the great ‘white savior’ and Aid for Africa further in how she is promoting her book. Her website notes that she is donating a portion of her book proceeds to non-profit foundations helping women in Kenya preserve their culture (the one she tried to change?). Therefore, she is continuing to see Kenya and Africa only as a place that is wanting in the form of charity and not trade. She only wants to engage with the Masaais in a donor-recipient relationship. As an MBA, I would have hoped to see her think of assistance to the Masaai in more practical and sustainable ways related to her professional background such as supporting Masaai women entrepreneurs, investing in incubators or entrepreneurship ventures and the like. There are also a number of projects and needs that the Masaai Association has identified.
Kenya’s Female Warriors
Ultimately, Masaai women do not need her help. There is a plethora of Masaai women fighting their own battles and fighting for the rights that are important to them. Her narrative undermines the work that these women and women’s organizations have been doing. Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya’s essay, “Warrior’s Spirit: The Stories of Four Women from Kenya’s Enduring Tribe” provides us with narratives of such women. There is also further evidence that Budgor’s portrayal of patriarchy amongst the Masaai exaggerates the extent or level of inequality between males and females. According to the Masaai Association, both women and men fight in Masaai culture for specific cultural ritual. Therefore displays of physical prowess is not a foreign in Masaai culture. In fact all over pre-colonial Africa, women where priests, Queens, leaders, teachers, doctors and warriors. It is both possible and probable that female Masaai warriors have been erased from history and have come before her. It is often “forgotten” or not recognized that gender relationships on the continent in pre-colonial Africa were more egalitarian then Western gender relationships were. Many African women lost their rights during colonialism. The irony is that if Masaaai women were warriors in the past, they stopped becoming warriors because of women like her. Therefore, her narrative on what the chief said to her as the reason women do not become chiefs cannot be taken at face value. The fact that the only narratives of her achievements are not being celebrated by Kenyan or Masaai women’s right groups nor Kenyan newspapers, magazines or people should give us an insight in to their perceived significance of her “achievement”.
Kenyans and Africans on the blogosphere and online have been less then supportive. Two notable reactions are as follows:
“…As an African man who became a full professor in an American university in just two weeks, I appreciate Mindy’s struggle. I was visiting the University of ** when I asked a young man named Josh how many African professors there were. Josh, who was a prince in his own suburb in New Jersey, exclaimed: “None, of course. It would be too hard for you Africans.” We must change this, I insisted, and asked what I had to do to become a full professor. “You must shotgun a sixpack and toke on a bong,” he said. “But you can’t do that. You are too weak and will be wasted in no time.” I told my parents I was being sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education to become a professor, then I went to Josh’s dorm room, where I spotted a six-pack. I immediately shotgunned every beer. “Give me a bong now, ” I said, amazed at my own audacity. He did so, shocked by my perseverance. I managed to hold in my coughs, although my lungs were bursting. Later I took part in the Saturday night ritual where I danced the “Full Professor Dance.” This is why I sympathize with Mindy and applaud her remarkable book. I look forward to spearing lions with her on the Serengeti soon.”
“That she is making money off of this! That hurts! No difference between her and the colonialist or the slave traders….in my view she just came to take period! I would like to know if any of her book proceeds go back to the any of the people she used.”
Similar sentiments by Kenyan women where shared on the blog Africa is a Country.
Budgors story can be dismissed as one of simple cultural naiveté – but there’s an underlying story of cultural commodification that plays out that she is ready to exploit. 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. It is not a narrative that we should let gain further traction. Her fantastical story is also insulting to Masaai culture as the analogy by hambaumhlungu aptly highlights. Whilst her experience was somewhat “real”, her initiation was most likely symbolic and one hopes that she recognizes it as such. However, it is possible that she is aware of this fact but is also seizing on an opportunity to promote her book.
Lastly, Budgor also needs to be considered as a business woman who is out to sell a book to a target audience – the thousands of women just like her who may be inspired to follow in her footsteps with a limitless imagination (perhaps, some like her may aspire to become the first female president of an African country). She is selling a narrative of Africa that has been ingrained in western imagination that is detrimental to the continent. A culture where Westerners can just come in and upset the status quo for the purposes of instilling their version of ‘modernity’. Budgor commodifies Masaai culture for Western consumption and for a lucrative book deal. She also seems oblivious to how her presence and act is disruptive to the community. Where does it leave other female activists that have been working on the ground to make genuine changes in their own culture? Stories like hers do need to be addressed from African perspectives, particularly when highlighting how “do-gooders” profit from African culture and essence are not doing “good” at all. My only hope is that African women, particularly Masaai women are strong and brave enough to continue to resist such destructive narratives.