Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, with Herman Viola.
National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2003.
MG autobiography, 128 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 4.0 points) .
A unique story of a nomadic Maasai boy in Kenya who went to school and eventually came to America.
This is one of those books (of which, thankfully, I keep finding more and more) that I cannot recommend highly enough. There are few books in English that tell about African life in an unbiased and non-colonial manner. When you add to that a middle grade, non-fiction book about nomadic peoples? I cannot think of any other. Lekuton has lived that rare combination of an extraordinary life and a perfectly ordinary one. Luckily for us, he’s also decided to put it into an autobiography for middle grade readers.
There are eleven chapters, each around ten pages long although some run longer or shorter. The first chapter focuses on “the lion story,” or a moment when Lekuton insisted on joining a small group of warriors fighting lions who had eaten two of their cows – which did not end well for him. In the second chapter, Lekuton backtracks to explain a bit more about Maasai culture and his own early life. Chapter three discusses the importance of cows and a bit more about daily life.
The pinching man and other forms of village discipline are covered in chapter four. Then chapter five covers how Lekuton got to attend school and what it was like for him. As an educator, this was the most fascinating chapter for me. Next the duties and responsibilities of a herdsman are covered in chapter six, then initiation in chapter seven. If the above paragraphs make this book sound overly dry, please know that it is not. All of the information unfolds in a natural, almost conversational way through stories from Lekuton’s own life.
Up until this point, that life has been much like that of any other child chosen to be his family’s required representative in the schools, but things change when he fails the high school examinations. After living for a year with a relative so he can attend a better school (yes, zoning is a problem even in Kenya) he wins a place in one of the best schools in the country.
Getting into high school is one problem, staying there is another. In many countries, higher education is paid for by the family or clan, and with a drought, the cows left are all needed. Chapter nine is about the soccer game that changed his life, and chapter ten is about coming to America for education beyond high school. Finally, eleven is about how he straddles two worlds – traditional Maasai life in Kenya with his people, and life as a school teacher in America.
The afterword is an essay by coauthor Herman Viola which gives more details about Lekuton’s transition to teaching in the USA and his life at the time of publication. Normally such pieces are non-essential, but I felt this one added helpful details. In particular, the story about the misbehaving tourists shocked that he spoke English strikes me as important reading for Americans.
Often when I finish an adult read, I’m left wishing for a YRE that I can share with the children. This was my first time ever finishing a middle grade book and wishing that there was an adult version! However, as Lekuton has become a Kenyan politician, one can hope that he is merely accumulating more life experiences before publishing his adult autobiography.
Teachers and parents will want to be aware that chapter seven includes a ritual circumcision. The process, including the physical alteration, is described factually and not sensationalized, but it might still be too much for the younger end of MG or might not be suitable for some classrooms. The initiation is mainly kept to that one chapter, and a teacher or parent reading aloud could simply skip that portion if needed.
Other areas of warning include severe dehydration, near starvation, a beating, other physical discipline, knife injury, a lion attack, and descriptions of routine Maasai cultural practices such as bleeding cows or breastfeeding infants. All of these are described in an appropriate way for the reading level, but I mention them for sensitive readers. Two other moments to be aware of – when a hyena eats itself (a few lines which can be skipped or paraphrased) and when Lekuton and some schoolmates encounter a herd of wild elephants fleeing from poachers with guns.
Facing the Lion is the rarest of middle grade books, a story both interesting and educational, something that will appeal to both preteens and adults. I would even suggest this one for high school libraries as well, as a hi-low book or even just a fast and fascinating bit of background on a lesser known people. Highly recommended.