“Facing the Lion”: A Memoir That Speaks Volumes about Effective Storytelling and Autobiographical Writing

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Panorama of the Serengeti
Detail of panorama of the Serengeti. Josski / Dutch Wikipedia

In 2003 the National Geographic Society published a memoir called Facing the Lion by Joseph Lemasolai  Lekuton in which the author describes growing up on the savannah in northern Kenya along the southern border of Ethiopia and leading a nomadic life as a member of the Maasai people. The memoir—included on NEH’s list of favorite nonfiction titles—has elements of interest to middle grade readers from age eleven to fifteen, including adventure and danger.

A fourteen-year-old, Lemasolai, the narrator, must overcome the village’s initial doubts about him and prove his courage as a warrior. Lemasolai is also an ambitious student, hungry for learning generally unavailable to members of his village. A series of both well-earned accomplishments and plain good luck lead to a scholarship at a high school and then to colleges in the United States. (A performance in a soccer match witnessed by Kenya’s president also plays a role.)

Analyzing how Lekuton and his coauthor—Herman Viola—craft the memoir and how it reaches its resolution will serve as valuable steps for students continuing to develop skills in both critical reading and effective expository writing.

Facing the Lion is a good read not only because it’s an exciting tale well told, but also because, like many great stories, it starts in media res—in the middle of things. Since Facing the Lion is a memoir, tension and conflict help shape the narrative from the outset. Most autobiographies would begin with the author’s birth and follow his or her life chronologically. A memoir, however, can choose a dramatic starting point that initiates tension and conflict, establishing themes for the rest of the work. This is one aspect of the memoir genre that Lekuton’s book does so well.

Chapter 1—“A Lion Hunt”—begins with the threat of a nighttime attack by a lion on the village’s herd of cows, which Lemasolai is helping to watch over. The lion does in fact make a kill, the favorite cow of Lemasolai’s mother, which Lemasolai feels he must avenge by killing the lion. The day after the attack, however, when the warriors encircle the lion, Lemasolai realizes he is among the youngest in the group protecting the herd and chooses to seek the help of experienced warriors from another village. As Lemasolai meets and accompanies experienced warriors who are arriving to help, the lion is able to slip away, thereby creating the ingredients for a future fight. Members of Lemasolai’s own village suggest, however, he ran away at the most dangerous moment of confronting the lion.

Aside from presenting the challenge of Lemasolai’s having to prove his courage, this opening chapter creates much milieu-setting detail. Lemasolai describes cows’ collective reaction, for example, to the danger of a hunting lion (this involves the loss of control over a bodily function), how a pair of lions that are hunting splits up and strategically establishes positions on either side of the herd, how acacia thorns and bushes tear flesh during the confusion and fear of a nighttime stampede. There are also moments when Lekuton judiciously employs onomatopoeia, such as in describing the lion’s warning roars. The result is a lively story line, punctuated with elements of interest in and of themselves and important as well in advancing the narrative.

Lemasolai also feels a great pride in this first chapter in having suggested a tactic that saves most of the herd from being killed the night of the attack. He realizes his suggestion came from his “school learning” rather than his own experience, thus setting up the theme that will continue, regarding his pursuit of an education in what are often far-flung schools, where he must spend months away from his family, his village, and the brotherhood of warriors.

Pride is at the center of the following chapter, aptly titled “The Proud One,” but for reasons a reader wouldn’t expect. Playing off readers’ expectations is in fact another time-honored aspect of the memoir or good storytelling in general. Days after his birth, Lemasolai still refuses to drink milk from his mother’s breast, preferring instead to drink from a cow’s teat. No coaxing would prevail in convincing the newborn to take milk from his mother, and as a result he earned his name, “Lemasolai” meaning “the proud one” in the Maasai language.

We also learn that the word for the capital city of Kenya, Nairobi, comes from a Maa word meaning “cold," and that it’s taboo to count people, which causes census takers no end of pains to come up with an accurate number of Maasai. Cows are so integral to the culture, that every new birth among the village’s families is announced by saying either “male cow” or “female cow.”

Reverence for cows, then, is at the heart of Chapter 3, which delves into some ethnographic detail, pointing out that the villagers count wealth only in the number of cows they own, and in fact not to own a cow is just simply uncivilized.  The favorite drink among the Maasai is the sweet milk their cows produce, with cows’ blood mixed in, mixed in, in fact, in greater quantity when a medicinal drink is needed.

With eleven chapters in all, the memoir goes on to resolve the central conflict about courage, narrate Lemasolai’s series of successes at school, the winning of scholarships, and his coming to the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree at St. Lawrence University. After earning a master’s at Harvard, Lekuton taught U.S. history at the Langley School just outside Washington, D.C.

Lekuton and Viola tell Lemasolai’s story deftly and with an economy of speech that might seem to present a challenge to readers of this level, but the logical presentation of the right detail at the right moment make it all manageable, delightful, and entertaining. Additionally, the story hits on subjects central to the world of middle grade readers: family, friends, and community.

Albert Marrin, author of several dozen books for young adults, has said, “Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” Therein lies the value of Facing the Lion, too. For teachers, presenting the first three chapters to classes near the end of the school year could pique students’ interest to continue on their own over the summer. If so, the effort will pay off, helping with future assignments in autobiographical writing, study of literary form (the family memoir), and literary analysis, opening the way as well for work in African studies and African literature.

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