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Lions have special meaning in Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton’s home country. In the Kenyan village where he grew up, killing one of the giant cats is the mark of a great warrior: “Other warriors even make up songs about how brave you are,” he writes in Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna, the memoir he’s written to help introduce young readers to his native culture.
As the book opens, two lions stalk a herd of cowsan especially alarming event because, as Lekuton explains, cows are even more important than lions in his native society. “The economic resource base is the cow, and the goat, [and] the sheep…” he says. Cattle confer prestige upon their owners, whose wealth is measured by the size of their herds. It’s cows that pay for Lekuton’s high-school education in Facing the Lion. Even their sweat turns out to be crucial: It sustains him during a drought.
The narrator, about 14 years old when the lions come to menace the herds, initially joins a group setting out to kill the cats. But he chooses instead to alert additional warriors at a nearby campa safer but less honorable task. Yet as the book progresses, facing the lion becomes Lekuton’s mental metaphor for situations that demand bravery: getting his bearings in a new country, being shooed away by a security guard on his first day of high school.
The Maasai are a nomadic peoplecows must graze, and as Lekuton says, “the grass cannot come to you.” Indeed, rather than use a dot to pinpoint the author’s home, the book’s map colors in a stretch of land more than 200 miles wide. Lekuton’s educational career has covered an even broader territory: He began his studies at a Kenyan missionary school and finished them this past June at Harvard Universitythe biggest of his “lions”with a master’s degree in international educational policy.
In 1994, Lekutonwho’s not sure exactly how old he is, but puts his age at “maybe 32, 33″took a post teaching social studies and history to seventh- and eighth-graders at Northern Virginia’s Langley School. His students were the audience he kept in mind as he planned and wrote his book. “I should write for their age and to…expose them to a different culture,” he recalls deciding, “without actually making it very academic.”
So he made his work personal and upbeat, using stories from his own childhood that a young readership can relate to. Readers learn about a crucial soccer match against his high school’s big rival, about the two pairs of shorts Lekuton wore to cushion the blows of a teacher’s beating, and about run-ins with a bully who had designs on his American tennis shoes.
Today, Lekuton lives in both worlds. His teaching schedule allows him to return each year to Kenya, where he does volunteer work, helping to build schools and improve water quality.
“When I go back to Kenya…I slide right into my culture,” he says. “Come back to America, it might take me some time before I really catch up.”
Students and parentssometimes in groups of more than 100often join him on his trips, giving him a chance to illustrate the differences between his two homes. “I bring them to see the cow-dung hut my mother lives in,” he says, “and they cannot believe that…someone whose mother lives in a cow-dung hut lives in America now and goes to Harvard.” Joe Dempsey