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This memoir begins as 14-year-old Joseph or Lemosolai, the name depends on whether he's at his boarding school or with his nomadic family, tells a lion story. He's freshly home on a school vacation, having shed his slacks-and-blazer uniform for his cattle herder's beads and nanga. (The piece of red cloth is attire by day, blanket by night.) He's sleeping on a cowskin spread under the stars when he hears, this huge sound, like rain, but not really like rain. And even though he, unlike his brothers and cousins, spends much of his year at school, he still knows exactly what this sound means. He knows it as surely as your child knows a ringtone.
The cows are peeing because a lion is about to attack.
Facing the Lion opens with the lion attack and proceeds to describe the remarkable coming of age of Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, who, when the book was published, was a twenty-something man dividing his time between a nomadic herdsman's life in northern Kenya and a teaching job at a private school near Washington, D.C. He had sustained this kind of cultural balancing act since the age of about 6, when the curious boy volunteered to seek an education but also pledged to himself that he also would be true to the rigorous expectations of Maasai culture.
This is a book to make novelists despair: Fiction simply cannot top it. Lemasolai's father died when he was very young; he's being raised by an indulgent mother, his father's other wife and his older brothers when he first goes to school. The Maasai livelihood depends on herds of cattle that must be moved amid grazing lands, so when Joseph is on break from school he finds a ride on the furthest-bound truck, and then gets out and starts running. With luck, he senses the right direction, and in 20 or so miles he finds his family. Or he starts over, running in a different direction. If his triangulation of the savanna takes too many days, he feels lucky when there's a cave to sleep in that's sheltered from hyenas.
In 121 compulsively readable pages, Joseph Lemasolai learns to read and write, plays soccer in a manner that results in the patronage of Kenya's president, comes to the United States for college, and eagerly undergoes the ritual circumcision that makes a man out of a Maasai youth. This episode, needless to say, can be stomach-churning, but it's also cultural anthropology at its page-turning best.
Facing the Lion is the kind of book that doubles as a conversion. Whatever you thought before-about Africa, say, or manhood, or work, or wealth, or even the whole human condition, gets shifted when you read this memoir. The world under the old sun just feels newer, more capacious. It's nice to know, too, that Lekuton, who has been instrumental in education and development projects in his homeland, was elected to Kenya's Parliament in 2007.