for National Geographic News
Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton knows how to meet challenges. A boy doesn't survive on the plains of Africa without learning those skills very quickly. In his first book, Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna (National Geographic Books, 2003), Lekuton writes about his Maasai upbringing with a special audience in mind: his American grade school students.
"I teach private school, seventh and eighth grade," says Lekuton, a social studies instructor at the Langley School in northern Virginia. "And I thought, here I am, an African, and Africa gets a lot of bad press. Why can't I do something positive for my students and kids their agewhy can't I just tell them about my life?"
The book, written in collaboration with author Herman Viola, highlights aspects of Maasai culture through the lens of Lekuton's childhood.
Nancy Feresten, vice president and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Children's Books, edited Facing the Lion. "Joseph is a fabulous storyteller," said Feresten. "And he's also light-hearted about himself, revealing that he was a fallible kid, just like kids everywhere. He's mischievous and disobeys his parents. He worries about growing up, looking brave, becoming an adult in the community. These are all common concerns, no matter where you are. The emotional reality of being a child, I think, is universal."
The book title stems from an incident in which Lekuton, as a very young and untried warrior, met his first lion with excitement and bravadoonly to run away at the last minute.
The experience was a major turning point for Lekuton.
"My Lion Became Many Things"
"From that time on, that lion ceased to be the real lion I was fighting. My lion became many things," Lekuton says. "It became education. Overcoming the high school, and kids who were laughing at me because I did not belong. Overcoming the drought, overcoming a lot of things. It became a symbol of challenges that I'll encounter for the rest of my life."
Lekuton's formal education began when he was five or six and volunteered to take his older brother's place at the local primary school. But he balanced this new life with the ways of his old: every school break he would set off in search of his family, who constantly traveled to find good grazing and fresh water for their cattle. Later, he underwent the rites of passage to become a full Maasai warrior in his village. He worked to gain admission to high school in Nakuru, where he studied geography, economics, and Kiswahili.
With a plane ticket purchased through the sale of cattle by his village, Lekuton eventually came to the United States and obtained bachelor's and master's degrees from St. Lawrence University. He recently completed an additional master's degree at Harvard this past June, and gave the commencement address for his class. Lekuton since has returned to the Langley School to continue teaching social studies this fall.
Among classes, Lekuton's is known to be one of the most challenging. But he makes no apologies for pushing his students to learn. "I've always felt geography is so important," explains Lekuton. "My students have a big test. I give them a blank map of the world and tell them: Fill it out. Tell me where each country is. Tell me the capital. Tell me the economic resources of that country. I'd hate for my students to sit at home one evening and see the news, and have their parents ask them, 'Oh, where is that happening?' and for them to go, 'Well, we don't know.' You have to know where people live. You have to know where cultures survive, and where cultures have fallen, and where people have excelled economically or academically."
Each summer Lekuton also takes a group of students to Kenya to visit his village and see the country firsthand. "I like them to see the village I grew up in, actually go to the hut and say 'Ah! There's my mom,' so they know how the rest of the world lives, not only in America." He takes them to his old primary school, where few students have shoes or good clothing. "I always point at one of the kids and say 'This was me.'"
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