Why city slicker Mindy Budgor swapped her stilettos for a spear as she became the first female Maasai warrior.
City slicker Mindy Budgor’s new book details how she swapped her designer suits for spears in her quest to become the first female Maasai warrior. Now back to ‘normal life’, the experience has changed her for ever, as Hannah Stephenson finds out
What drives a middle-class woman with a love of Chanel and Louis Vuitton to swap her city life for one in the wilderness of the African bush amid dangerous animals?
This was the choice of high-flyer Mindy Budgor, who joined a Maasai tribe and found herself tracking lions by sticking her finger in their droppings, among other pursuits.
Today, reminders of her Maasai adventure are scattered around her Manhattan apartment, including her sword and spear, which she used to ward off a buffalo and other beasts, while she still wears the bracelet of colourful beads given to her on the day she was inducted into the tribe.
“I also wear a ring made of buffalo horn. It was a buffalo we ended up killing – only because it was going to kill us,” she adds.
The 32-year-old adventurer has now charted her experiences in her book, Warrior Princess, setting the scene for this life-changing journey.
In her early twenties, Mindy had achieved more business success than most enjoy in a lifetime. The gogetting entrepreneur had already sold her first business – a concierge laundry service for students she began while at college – for a tidy sum.
She bought a condo and had savings left over, got a job and joined the corporate treadmill in Chicago, but couldn’t find anything that really motivated her. She decided to apply to business school but, while waiting for a place, sidestepped with a visit to Africa. It came about after a college friend told her about a trip she had taken to build a clinic in the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in Kenya named after the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic tribe and the first inhabitants of the area.
Instantly, Mindy was hooked and decided to go out there. “I felt my values were a bit out of sync and that I was focusing too much on reaching a finish line, getting into school or more materialistic things,” she says. “As soon as I landed, I saw these tribesmen I knew were Maasai walk into the forest with jjust a spear and a sword, with complete and utter confidence, and tthere were lions and elephants out tthere. I thought if I could just have 1 per cent of that warrior pperspective, I’d be in a more aauthentic place in my life.”
Taking up the challenge
OOn the initial two-week trip, she bbefriended a Maasai chief called WWinston, who told her that women ccouldn’t become Maasai warriors bbecause they weren’t brave enough oor strong enough to do what the mmen could do.
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I knew that wwarriors were there to protect their cocommunity, never hide from an ananimal and when resources were slim, they’d go hungry first.
“Winston said, ‘Well, if you’re willing to leave your high heels behind, I’ll take you through the rites of passage.’”
Back home in the US, Mindy began building herself up in the gym, then returned to Africa to take up Winston’s challenge.
Over the course of three months, she lived with the Maasai, sleeping on leaves in the forest, encountering elephants, snakes and other perils, only eating what they could kill. “The
mental side was the most difficult. It took a week or two for me to stop being paralysed with fear,” Mindy recalls. “Every time I saw a tree branch break, I would think an elephant was coming and I would tense up. That’s not how a warrior operates. It hindered my ability to be in the moment.
“As for the physical side, on a daily basis it was completely gruelling, from learning how to use a spear, which ripped up my hands, to going head-on with animals.
“A major turning point for me was when we came face-to-face with a buffalo. Up until then, I’d turn and run in the other direction and climb a tree. But six weeks in, I charged towards the buffalo and threw my spear, which landed in the buffalo’s behind. At that point, the warriors said, ‘She is strong and brave enough to be one of us.’”
During her induction, Mindy had to slaughter a goat. She learnt that lions have a very distinctive smell, how to identify paw and hoof prints and the calls of leopards and elephants.
Personal hygiene may have been low on the agenda, but she kept her Red Dragon Chanel nail polish on at all times to remind her of her former life and to give her extra courage.
She lost a lot of weight and admits she missed some home comforts.
“I missed Oreo cookies and bottled water. There were so many times when I was dying for bottled water. Nothing was clean out there. It was all earthy.”
And the experience has changed her values, she admits.
“I still like shiny, pretty things, but if they’re not in my life, that’s fine. They don’t define me. These days, fear is not something I let stop me. If there’s a challenge, I don’t think about not being able to achieve it.”
Thinking about the greater good
Today, five years on and living in Manhattan, Mindy says she still lives by the warrior principles.
“Everything the Maasai do is for the community, so there’s an element of selflessness that has seeped into my bloodstream,” she says. “I try to think about what the greater good will be in everything I do.”
Adapting to life in the city after sleeping in the forest for three months wasn’t easy.
“I felt very uncomfortable sleeping in a bed, but it didn’t take me too long to re-adapt,” she says wryly.
After returning from Kenya in 2008, Mindy spent two years at business school in Chicago, moved to New York and wrote the book of her experiences.
Some 25 per cent of the book’s proceeds are being donated to Free The Children, a charity that serves the Maasai community in Kenya.
In January she’s returning to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of women who are part of the next warrior class.
“Once I’d left, some of the elders decided they wanted to push the initiative of allowing girls to become warriors,” she explains.
Mindy believes their philosophy is something we could all adopt. “You don’t have to be Maasai to be a warrior, but I believe there’s a warrior within everyone. I want to get that message out.”
Warrior Princess chronicles Mindy Budgor’s journey to becoming the first female Maasai warrior