James Nampushi has great respect for the lion that almost killed him.
That lion made James an honored warrior, a hero and eventually the first college graduate among his Maasai people. And it was the lion that brought James to Clemson where soon he will earn his master’s degree and begin working on a Ph.D. in park management.
That was not the lion’s objective, of course, but that’s the way it happened. It’s impossible to know what the lion was thinking, exactly, but James has an idea. Lions just know things, he said.
And that day, the great predator knew its life was in danger. He identified the bravest of three Maasai men moving closer. And the lion knew that he or the leader — perhaps both — would die.
“The lion also was brave,” James said.
The bravest of the three young warriors, according to the songs and the stories and the witnesses — not to mention the lion — was James Nampushi. Now, he is a 29-year-old graduate student in Clemson’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management department. Then, he was 19 and a candidate for the honored status of Maasai warrior.
After a lifetime of living among the most dangerous animals of Kenya, the three youth had reached the age where the Maasai test the character and courage of their young men to see if they are worthy of the full mantle of Maasai warrior.
“For you to become a warrior, you have to be tested,” James said. “You have to prove the bravery. You have to prove that you are courageous, that you are able to face the beast of the jungle, the lion king, and use your spear and bare hands to kill with the most appropriate skills. That you can kill the lion and survive.”
To understand why the Maasai kill lions, it is necessary to understand their relationship with cows.
“Cows are our life partners,” James said. “I would rather have nine cows than $9 million in my account.”
Shortly after James arrived in Clemson, he was feeling the anxiety and stress of life in a foreign country. A friend took him to a cattle farm where he stood among the cows for a time and felt their calming influence.
“The cows, they brought me peace. They made me happy,” he said.
While others in East Africa learned to cultivate the land and depend on a cash economy, the Maasai continued to live off the blood, milk and meat of their cattle. As the rest of Kenyan society modernized, the government kept the Maasai on the margins for the benefit of tourism, James believes. So their relationship with nature remains raw. When lions killed seven cows one night, the Maasai response would be to discipline the lions — to remind them that cows are off limits.
James and two others were chosen to pursue and kill one of the lions. As the elders saw it, the lion needed killing, and the three young men needed to prove they were worthy warriors.
When the young men found the lion, James directed the other two into position. The three would place themselves in a triangle around the lion so that their spears would not strike each other if they missed the lion. The lion saw that it was James giving the orders, that it was James taking charge, that it was James who was bravest. So the lion attacked James.
The lion was just 15 feet away when it made its move. James had little time to react. He aimed his spear for a place on the charging lion’s breast that he knew covered a vulnerable center of veins and organs.
“But the lion was also brave in coming,” James said. “He dodged and I didn’t get the target, but I got close.”
As the lion leaped with its entire weight toward James, the six-foot spear sank deep into the length of its body. Only the last three inches were outside the breast. It was a serious wound to the animal, but not immediately fatal. For the moment, the lion intended to keep fighting.
It snared James’ left hand with its jaws. James pulled a short sword he carried at his side, intending to cut the lion’s throat.
“But the lion gave me a kick on the elbow, and my sword was thrown out,” James said.
Now James is held in the mouth of a lion, and his only remaining weapons are the other two warriors. But they can’t help without harming James. The lion lifts James and uses him as a shield, placing James between him and the other spears. In doing so, it pushes a front paw at the left of James’ stomach. James doesn’t know it yet, but the sharp claw cuts so deeply that his intestines bulge from the wound. When the lion rips a gash at his lower right leg, blood rushes from James so fast that his strength wanes. As he loses consciousness, James is still held fast by the lion.
‘If nature says you die, you die’
It is a long way from the bush to Lehotsky Hall for James Simiren Ole Nampushi. James’ village had no running water, no electricity, not even a table. He studied on the floor of a hut in the evenings by kerosene light with a small box on his lap. In the mornings, he ran nine miles to school. He ran to avoid elephants and buffalo.
Everyone drank from a watering hole, but they shared it with the animals. And humans are not at the top of the pecking order at the watering hole. The elephants go first, the buffalo drink second, and so it goes until the people get a turn, right after the cattle. By then the water is unclean, and the people use only their clothing as a filter.
His people don’t even bother to dream about college in America. They busy themselves with survival.
“Nature dictates how long and when you live. If nature says you die, you die. You have no options,” James said.
After eight years, he went to a boarding high school where he experienced his first taste of modern conveniences.
“When I went to high school, I saw a new beginning. I saw the [electric] power, I saw the water from the tap, and I saw for the first time a sink,” James said. “I put on shoes for the first time.”
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