14/10/2013

Becoming a Warrior Princess

Uncle Tom / By Uncle Tom

How the Maasai make a business out of their traditions and how that is good for them.

So a little girl called Mindy Budgor went to the Maasai in Kenya and made a fortune after she got herself a spear, killed a buffalo and became a Warrior Princess. She wrote a book about it and it’s all native and noble and full of love for red-dressed, barefoot Maasai and standing firm against lions, but mostly against Western influence that wants Maasai to live in houses and have TV’s. Oh yes and she also fixed Maasai women’s emancipation because before her visit, Maasai women were not allowed to be warriors and camp out in the mud and have spears and wait for lions. Now they are.

The list of people attacking poor Mindy Budgor’s exploitation of the Maasai was endless. She was expropriating their culture, she was making money over their backs, and you can’t even become a Warrior like that, just killing a buffalo like she did wasn’t enough, you need to train for years, and you need to get circumcised, too! Did they circumcise you, Mindy Budgor? I was amazed at how many American students on Tumblr knew exactly what it would take to become a fully certified warrior among the Maasai.

Or maybe not-so-poor Mindy Budgor. Her book is selling quite well. It was reviewed by the BBC on television. Poor Maasai, then? Not really. They were paid for the training, they got publicity, they got some project or other. Which is why, one blogger explained, the pastoral-living, red-dressed, barefoot Maasai do what they do. “They made the white woman feel good, which that tribe is excellent at. It's how they keep themselves a tourist destination. It provides a chunk of income since pastoralism is increasingly less feasible.” I guess it’s a bit like the Navajo camps in the United States, where tourists can sleep in teepees, or the Dutch villages where you can get your picture taken in wooden shoes, or the real-life ‘Mafia-performances’ for tourists on Sicily. Good for them.

When I have to pick a battle here, it’s not Mindy Budgor, or any of the bloggers. It’s with the BBC. Granted, it’s only a book programme, but they should have known better than to ask Mindy to explain the Maasai and ‘their culture’ and how they have to fight to keep their traditions. (This happened, incidentally, two weeks after the BBC’s Africa Chief, Peter Horrocks, told a Q and A on Twitter how very accurately the BBC tells ‘the story of Africa’.)

Dear BBC, culture is a changing thing, you know. Great-aunt Flora always tries to force us to eat her chicken feet stew and attend her hallelujah church on Sundays because ‘it’s our culture’. I hope she doesn’t get her hooks into Mindy. Fighting lions in the mud is nothing compared to a week with great-aunt Flora.