Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna Summary

Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna

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Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna Summary

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Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna is a memoir by Kenyan writer and speaker, Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton. Facing the Lion was published by National Geographic in 2003. Lekuton has been devoted to imporving educational opportunities within his community, which is nomadic in nature. He stresses that education is the path to moving up the social ladder. The book tells of his life from childhood to his college graduation. When he ultimately earned a PhD from Harvard, The Harvard Gazette said of Lekuton, “Like the nomadic villagers, who can pack their few belongings and change location at a moment’s notice, Lekuton relishes his cultural fluidity, cherishing his life as a Maasai cattle herder every bit as much as his American academic life. In the book he’s written to help middle school students understand his culture (Facing the Lion, National Geographic Press, 2003), in the ceremonial robes he will wear beneath his cap and gown, in the gratitude he expresses for his uneducated mother’s support and encouragement, Lekuton’s pride in his Maasai heritage beams bright. ‘I’m not afraid to say that my mom lives in a cow-dung hut. She is so poor, but she is rich in that hut,’ he says. ‘She has so much information in that brain that she gave me a priceless education that even a Harvard professor can’t give me.’’’

In Facing the Lion, Lekuton relates in an episodic way incidents of his life growing up in northern Kenya. He is a member of a subgroup of the Maasai culture called the Ariaal. His people live in Kenya and Tanzania and are bound to their ancient ways of life and rely on their cows for survival. He explains how cows determine where the nomadic community continually relocates itself. Once their supply of water, or of grass for grazing runs out, it is time for the village to move on. The availability of better grazing areas also serves as an indication that the group should relocate. They live off the land and their cattle. In one or two days they might walk twenty or thirty miles. With little more than primitive spears they fend off predators like lions that threaten their cattle. The author creates a detailed picture of various facets of the life and culture of his people. He explains what is known as the quotidian, which is the custom of drinking milk that has been mixed with the blood of cows. He tells us that children are responsible for tending to the calves in a herd. He explains the role of the pinching man, whose job it is to determine punishments for the children of the village. Also described is the ritualistic circumcision ceremony, a rite of passage for young men on their journey to becoming warriors.

In the aftermath of a governmental order that one boy from each nomadic family must attend school, Lekuton goes to a school that is operated by American missionaries. His mother is supportive of his attending the school, although the tribe thinks he should drop out to assist with herding the cattle. Since his family is always moving from place to place there are times he has to walk forty miles to return home during school vacations periods. He later attends an elite boarding school in Nakuru. He goes on to earn a college scholarship to St. Lawrence University in New York. After having worked in a bank to amass the funds he needs to get to America, he goes to the United States, in spite of the fact that he had heard it was a dangerous place.

Booklist described Facing the Lion saying, “This simple memoir is the extraordinary story of a poor nomadic boy in Kenya who literally travels across the world but never abandons home. Lekuton grew up in Kenya’s poorest tribe, herding cows and playing in trees and hyena holes before he entered a missionary boarding school and went to college in the U.S. Now he teaches in Virginia, but he has never lost his Maasai roots, and he returns home to help his people several months a year. Looking back without romanticism or self-pity, he remembers how it was: the joy and excitement, the constant hunger and moving, and the traditions, including the circumcision ceremony that made him a man. The Cinderella theme begins in Kenya where he’s the shabby kid accepted at a fancy Nairobi high school. Later he travels to his college interview in a cattle truck with the cows. What gives this short, readable book its power is Lekuton’s authoritative, intimate view of now and then.”

The author has never abandons his roots, no matter how many years removed and no matter how entrenched in the world of academia. Every year during the summer Lekuton accompanies a group of students on a trip to Kenya. They visit his village and see firsthand what life is like. In so doing, he gives them a perspective of life to contrast with the way of life they know in America.