Maasai Speak Out, But Mindy Budgor Doesn't Seem to be Listening

Budgor missed an opportunity to write a thoughtful, useful memoir. Kenyan Maasailand is a place with which one can easily "fall in love." But real love is not about objectification.
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Esinaoi Pashille's response
to Mindy Budgor's book and media junket strikes a note in a mounting chorus of voices critical of Budgor's self-aggrandizement based on over-simplification and commodification of Maasai culture.

Critiques are circulating. Just a few include a post by Vanessa at literallydarling ,
Ibrah Kanet's piece on Shomo News , a Kenyan on-line site for Maasai news, Africa is a Country's
piece for its #BullshitFiles, Rarin ole Sain's comments at Jezebel and SpectraSpeaks's Twitter rant.

Two Facebook pages ("Fake Warrior Princess" and "Operation Stop California's 1st Maasai Warrior") provide space for critical commentary. Nearly 200 comments and responses appear in the customer reviews section on Amazon . Affirmative commentary exists too, like this story in Glamour .

There seems to be little middle ground between celebration of her personal journey to "empowerment" or disgust at the means with which she has pursued this end. Beth Greenfield's Yahoo!Shine story ignited over 3000 comments, many negative, with some 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."

In Budgor's "exclusive response" she purportedly "meet[s] the criticisms head-on." She says she is "surprised by the vitriol and hurtful commentary about [her] 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." This post received 16 negative responses and one positive, stating: "You rock Mindy! Anyone who complains either hasn't read the book or is just looking to make trouble." Commenters clarify that the trouble-makers are Maasai people themselves, mostly women, who don't want or need Budgor as a spokesperson.

In a Maasai-led collective response to Budgor's disturbing misrepresentation of Maasai life, history and culture, friends and colleagues have conference called, emailed and deliberated daily on social media from our homes around the world. We posted concerns on Budgor's Facebook page but our comments were deleted and access blocked. So we posted one-star-ratings and critical reviews to Amazon. We wrote the Today Show requesting a segment featuring Maasai men and women as a corrective to affirmations of Budgor's "quest." Kakenya Ntaiya, 2013 CNN Hero Nominee, reached out across Facebook twice, requesting a discussion with Budgor. No response on either yet.

We have tried to present a counternarrative to what we view as Budgor's inaccurate, solipsistic, and wrong-headed account of Maasai life.

In my own work and study of Maasai history and culture over the past 14 years, I have -- as many western advocates and academics I know have -- constantly interrogated my engagement in Maasai communities given the ever-present politics of location that shape all of our lives -- whether we see the politics or not.

For example, at the end of my stay, I return to the relative comfort of my educated, white middle class American privilege. My time spent in Maasai communities will culminate in a book written to secure my employment as an assistant professor on the tenure-track. As an outsider, my knowledge is partial, no matter how many questions I ask or how carefully I listen. I worry and wonder: Am I getting this right? Is the story I tell accurate, respectful, useful? Research like mine and engagements like Bugor's in volunteer projects and 'immersive' tourism are inherently fraught and complex. These situations always require sensitivity and reasoned care.

Budgor missed an opportunity to write a thoughtful, useful memoir. Kenyan Maasailand is a place with which one can easily "fall in love." But real love is not about objectification. The Maasai men she "trains" with are turned into exotic and sexualized objects for western readers to ogle for their "taut ebony bodies" who make "unfortunate concession[s] to modern civilization" by wearing "shorts under [their] tunics." Massai women, who she claims to speak for, are glaringly silent with the exception of the mythical "Faith" who has one line that Budgor claims solidified her resolve to purse her "quest." She represents two other "Maasai women" (who are never named) who make her tea and express serious ambivalence about "female warriors."

Budgor notes that maybe her "quest" isn't as "simple" as she might have thought. Yet in the very next sentence her sensationalizing narrative picks up where she left off: with her own "heart of darkness," her singular self-fulfillment on the "dark continent."

Budgor refuses to acknowledge generations of Maasai women and men who have fought and continue to fight for women's and girls' rights in Kenya and Tanzania. Her shortsighted opportunism overshadows real struggles for social, economic and political rights, including gender and generational justice, waged daily by warriors and schoolboys, schoolgirls and mothers, grandmothers and elders. In an effort to "develop and listen to [her] own voice," Budgor's exploits risk taking the place of actual Maasai voices activating for social change.

Diane Clehane, blogging for FishbowlNY, fuels fears that Budgor's no-guts-no-glory rhetoric has very little to do with "[her] tribe" and everything to do with her social capital among "power gals" and "BSDs" (a lá Budgor: "Big Swinging Dicks").

Clehane dishes: "...Jolie asked this impressive assemblage of power gals if they had any parting words of wisdom for Mindy on how to leverage her book and build a successful career here in New York. I must say, some of the advice was downright brilliant. Wenda recommended that Mindy go into advertising, because, "We swim with sharks all the time and you'd do really well," while Kyle advised Mindy to become a modern day female George Plimpton, who infiltrated the worlds of professional football, hockey and golf for his bestselling books. The rest of us chimed in, recommending she brand 'warrior princess' any which way she can. If you ask me, her book would make a great movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. "That's a great idea!" exclaimed Mindy. "I'll give you a percentage!" You've got a deal.

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