Meet Mindy Budgor, the world's first female Maasai Warrior
We were hiking in Kenya's Forest of the Lost Child when a horn caught my eye in the distance. That's a buffalo, I thought, and that is not good news. Before I could panic, I grabbed the spear tucked in my belt and ran as fast as I could-not away from the buffalo but toward it. I launched my spear. It arced through the air. Cheers erupted around me. I'd been the first to hit the beast, which in Maasai tradition meant that I got credit for the kill.
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 animal that could make short work of me, I'd have told you to get your head examined. Yet there I was. And I'd never been more sure I was in the right place.
I hadn't always been so certain. As a young girl in Maryland, I wasn't the daughter my parents had hoped for. They wanted skinny and polished; I was what my mother referred to as pleasantly plump. They wanted a ballerina; my first day of ballet class, I got booted out for knocking over an entire row of dancers with a spontaneous cartwheel. (I switched to ice hockey.) No matter what I tried, I just never fit their picture.
In college I started to go my own way and built a business in Chicago doing other kids' laundry and dry cleaning. I spent every spare minute growing the company, and I eventually sold it for enough cash to buy a condo with a view of Lake Michigan and a BMW, which I drove to all of the stores that were now getting my business-YSL, Gucci, and Prada.
Still, I worried I'd walked away from the company too soon. People told me I'd accomplished so much, but I felt like a big, fat failure. So I asked myself, What is my true idea of success? The answer surprised me: In a year I wanted to be in a developing country, doing something that actively made the world a better place.
I promised myself I would pursue that dream and took a marketing job to tide me over while I figured it out. The job kept me in Gucci, and I liked my coworkers. Time passed. Seasons followed seasons. Like so many people, I got stuck in a cycle of "If I can just...." If I can just get into business school, then I'll be happy. If I can just get this necklace or this bag, then I'll be happy. Two years had passed and I felt further away from my pledge than ever. I needed a change. I moved to my parents' empty condo in California and got to work.
I sent a mass email, asking friends if they knew of any programs I could get involved in. One responded, raving about a trip she'd taken to help build a health clinic in the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in southwestern Kenya. The area is named after the Maasai people, a group famous for their warriors, said to be among the bravest in history. I was so in.
Finding new family
From the moment I arrived, I felt at home. On my first day at the clinic, Winston, a local chief who was fluent in English, gave an introduction to the Maasai culture. He spoke about his people-their history, their reputation for drinking blood and eating raw meat (true) and killing lions (sorta true), and the storied Maasai warriors. "Warriors are crucial to our society," he said, full of pride. "They protect our community in times of war, like your military protects you. A warrior must be able to go face-to-face with a lion if it tries to kill our cows. A warrior is loved by the community." I'd been searching for something to believe in, and these men had found it right in the ground where they were raised. I wanted some of what they had.
Near the end of my trip, I got up the courage to ask Winston, "How many women are warriors?"
"None," he said. "Women are not strong enough or brave enough." But the Maasai women I saw were full of moxie. When I pressed him, he said, "You have to protect your community. You must eat only what you kill and drink blood. You must train until you are truly without fear. And, also, you have to be a man."
"I get the man part," I replied. "But everything else is something that a woman could do-something I think I can do. If I come back to Kenya, prepared to train, will you let me be a warrior?" He looked at me and said, "Sure-if you can live without trail mix and your fancy shoes, then I will do it. You will return to sunny California faster than a hippo can swallow you whole." All I heard was him saying, "Sure."
At the clinic a Maasai woman in her early thirties named Faith had heard about my plan. "Is it true you want to become a warrior?" I told her it was. At this point my goals were selfish; I only wanted to prove to myself that I could do something brave and hard so that I could find my way in the world. Faith got very serious and said, "Women in my tribe have wanted this for generations, but the tribal chiefs have never allowed it. If you have the ability to go through these rites of passage, I hope you take this seriously." And I realized this was not just about me.
I know how crazy this all sounds-a Jewish girl from California getting this chance. Why me? Why not Faith? I didn't even think to ask those questions at the time. I just knew if I was given this opportunity, I wasn't going to squander it.
I flew home and started working with a trainer; after about six exhausting weeks, I started to feel strong enough to actually survive a night in the forest. I didn't want to go through warrior training alone, so I phoned a friend I'd volunteered with in Kenya and asked her along. A free spirit and world traveler, she asked, "When?" I bought plane tickets for the next week.
Then I fessed up to my parents-sort of. "I'm going back to Kenya," I told them. "I have been sponsored by an athletic apparel company to train to be a warrior as part of a marketing plan." The sponsorship part, of course, was a lie. But I knew that if I told them I was doing this on a whim, they'd flip. My father would tell me I was wasting time; my mother would freak out and say, "You're going to get cholera! Or dysentery! Or die!" But my fib worked. My dad said, "OK, I guess this might help you get into business school." That was pretty much it.
The ultimate boot camp
Winston wasn't as easily convinced. When we arrived in the Maasai Mara, he hugged us, then asked, "Why are you here?"
"To become a warrior," I said.
"Oh, that's not going to happen," he said, looking confused. It was clear he hadn't understood how serious I had been. "We've never allowed women to do this. People in the tribe will come after you. There's no way I'm going to have the lives of two American girls on my shoulders."
I felt dejected-but no less determined. We went back to Nairobi, and a friend introduced us to a university-educated warrior named Lanet. When I told him about my quest, he paused, then said, "I was raised in a traditional Maasai household. My mother chopped the trees for firewood, milked our cows, raised the kids-and was still not recognized for her opinions. Maasai women deserve more respectable roles. Maybe by guiding you, I will get more clarity as to how to achieve this."
Just like that, we had a teacher who shared our mission.
That afternoon we headed into the bush. We brought nothing but the bare essentials (for me, that included a bottle of Chanel Dragon red nail polish-it just made me feel fierce-and a set of pearl earrings as a reminder of home) and our warrior gear: two tartan sheets that we would wrap around us as clothing, and the metal tips for our spears. Lanet explained that typically, a group of 10 to 20 young men go through the rites of passage over a period of three to seven years. "Your situation is different, so we will need to compromise," he said. "We will test you as we go. If at any time we feel you are not up for the challenge, then I will take you back to Nairobi. But if you do well, we will introduce you to the community." He carefully selected six other warriors who would join us-he knew he'd need persuasive men on our side when we returned to the village.
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.
Our first task was to collect leaves and branches to sleep on. That was backbreaking, but the hardest task came next: killing a goat. The Maasai suffocate their goats, which they believe is the most humane way to kill. I was petrified, but not about to wimp out on day one, so I held its mouth closed until it went limp. Another warrior slit its throat, then everyone stepped forward to drink fresh blood from its neck. I closed my eyes and did it. Minutes later I vomited.
The next weeks were some of the toughest and most wonderful of my life. We kept time by making cuts in a tree. Each day we trekked farther into the forest, practicing with spears and keeping an eye out for elephants, buffalo, the dreaded hippo, and lions-news of a lion attack had us all on edge. The warrior survived but was left with a scar the length of his body. We went hungry more than once, when a monkey stole our food or when we just didn't come across a kill that day. We slept on the ground, with Lord knows what crawling all over us. I cleaned my teeth with a twig. 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. I felt strong. I felt proud.
After 31 cuts in the tree, our final test was to return to Lanet's village to dance at two weddings. Would the villagers accept us as one of their own, or would we be rejected? We danced and sang all night, then one of the Maasai men lunged at me with his spear, shouting that white girls had no place at this party. I was shaken until Lanet pulled me away and said, "You're never going to have 100 percent approval. You have to learn to let that go." Besides, he told me, the village men had already come together and decided to change the law: "Now that they have seen two women successfully finish the rites of passage, they are going to open up the warrior class to our young women."
I was elated. The past few months had tested me more than I thought I could take. But there I was: alive, happy, thriving. And now other women-in his village, at least-were going to be able to get their chance too.
And home again
Soon after, I headed back to America. I filled my closet with stilettos again. I went back to expensive haircuts. But I wasn't the same girl who'd gone into the bush. My relationship with my parents has changed: These days we love each other because of our differences, not in spite of them. I am more at home in the world, and in my skin.
Lanet and I are in touch every week. He just let me know that this year, there are 12 girls in our village who will go through the next warrior class. As warriors they won't be married off young, which will drastically decrease their chances of dying in childbirth. They will have better lives. I'm not saying that my friend and I did that all on our own-not by a long shot. Lanet helped us. Faith helped us. The other warriors helped us. But some of that victory is ours, and that feels amazing.
Budgor's memoir, Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior, is out this fall. She will donate 25 percent of her proceeds to organizations that empower girls and preserve Maasai culture, and will also provide one school meal through the FEED foundation for every book sold.
To read more from our September issue, download the digital edition or pick a copy of Glamour on newsstands September 10.
Photo Credit: Danielle Levitt, Courtesy of Glamour
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