It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton is in the unique position of being able to fluidly merge the values of village life with educating children. As a teacher at The Langley School in McLean, Lekuton is respected and revered by his students, who know him as both a teacher and a warrior.
Lekuton hails from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, Africa. He grew up in a communal nomadic village where wealth is measured in cows and the passage of time is marked by seasons, not calendars.
His remarkable transformation into a highly respected teacher and recent recipient of a master's degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is punctuated by happenstance and serendipity. Members of his tribe do not go to school and are by and large illiterate. Maasai view education in terms of sustenance — the ability to care for herds, find water and know where the best grasses grow.
Lekuton is the youngest of three boys born to a mother who still lives in a dung hut on the savanna. The Kenyan government forced tribal families to send one child to school when Lekuton was a child. His oldest brother was not considered by the family because his skills and prowess as a herder were necessary to the family’s survival. The middle boy was chosen but detested the boarding school that was so far away from his village life. “My brother went and hid in a hyena's den, so then I was the only choice,” said Lekuton of the twist of fate that changed his future.
He was able to return to his tribe every three months, often walking up to 50 miles to locate his village, which moved depending on the supply of water and grasses to feed the herds. He has an enduring love for his mother. “Being able to go back and see her made school bearable,” said Lekuton. “I wanted to be a teacher so that I could spend more time with my mom.”
Lekuton did well at school because he recognized that education afforded him the opportunity to learn valuable skills that augmented the tribal knowledge being passed down to him. For years he switched between wearing a red cloth on the savanna and protecting the cattle from predators in the wild, and wearing a schoolboy's uniform in an urban environment.
HE RECEIVED a full scholarship to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. To purchase his ticket to America, his whole village sacrificed and sold cows to raise the money.
One of Lekuton’s skills is killing lions. He parlays that knowledge to intrigue and capture the attention of students. Lekuton wrote the book “Facing the Lion,” detailing his experiences on the savanna to bridge the cultural gap between the American students he teaches and the life he has lived. That book is ranked No. 4 on Amazon in its category.
“I wanted my students, and Americans in general, to learn about my culture through my eyes. It is a culture that is different. And still a culture like mine can still produce someone who goes to Harvard,” Lekuton said.
“There are similarities. You are always looking forward to the next day, to looking down the road. I’m applying what I learned from my culture here every day,” said Lekuton. He applies the principles of hard work, commitment and being ready for a challenge to the classroom as seamlessly as he does on the savanna.
In fact, each year he brings students from The Langley School and their parents back to Kenya with him to get the true flavor of tribal life and to undertake community service projects that make the lives of the Maasai easier. A scholarship for other Maasai children has been established in his name by families at The Langley School. The scholarship is through the Nomadic Kenyan Children’s Education Fund.
Eighth-grade student Maggie Pool is excited to be traveling to Kenya with Lekuton this year. “I’m really privileged at 13 years old to be going to Africa. It’s going to be amazing,” said Pool.
Part of what makes Lekuton a favorite teacher at The Langley School is his use of his personal experiences to illustrate his lessons. “An important lesson he’s taught us is that we complain about one little point on a test, when there are other people in the world who are poor, living on the street and don’t have the advantages we have,” said Pool.
“Is he cool? Yes, he’s the coolest,” said Pool.
As a teacher, Lekuton runs a tight ship in the classroom. “In front of them, I am the lion,” he said.
LEKUTON TRAVELS across the country to discuss his life and his book with children. A big crowd pleaser is when he uses his spear to demonstrate the proper way to slay a lion and protect cattle. “Cowards always throw when [the lion is] far away,” explained Lekuton. Courage, as demonstrated through his field of experience, means standing your ground in the face of danger.
It’s a lesson he applies to every aspect of his life, whether it’s in front of 100 children or in making difficult choices in his personal life.
He is so dedicated to his culture and his country that he intends to return to Africa in the near future, taking what he’s gleaned from America and using it to further improve his homeland.
“My main goal is to bridge the gap between the marginalized tribes to get as good an education as everyone else has,” said Lekuton. He will enter the world of politics to become a driving force in educational change in Kenya.
“I always knew I wanted to be a leader of my country. That’s all I knew. All we had then was a radio, and we only heard the president on the radio,” said Lekuton of his early idols.
“The infrastructure is not there. The roads are bad. There’s no electricity, and illiteracy is very high. It’ll be a challenge. Some people will resist education and still want their children to be herders,” said Lekuton.
It’s a dilemma he well understands because he grapples with that himself. He longs to return to his roots and waits impatiently for his yearly visits to the savanna that has captured his heart. “I miss the open land, the open savanna with wild life everywhere and the people,” Lekuton said.
Though he intends to utilize the knowledge gained in the Western world, he contends he won’t miss America once he’s home. “I won’t miss the luxury part of it. I’ll miss my friends and the accessibility of getting places, but I won’t miss any material things about the United States.”
In “Facing the Lion,” he wrote, “Everything you do in our culture, you are preparing for the next stage. Everything you do in life is preparing for the next challenge.”