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A Warrior In Two Worlds
Most of the Year, He’s a Teacher in McLean. In June, Some of His Students Saw His Other Life—and They’ll Never Be the Same.
Eight thousand miles from their private school in suburban Washington, a dozen girls walk into a village of cow-dung huts. Masai women welcome them with a song. The girls' social-studies teacher, Mr. Lekuton, knows the words.
"It's a cattle song," he says. "Everyone is trying to say, 'My cow is more beautiful.' "
The girls gather under an acacia tree in the Kenyan village, four hours north of Nairobi. The Masai wrap the girls in red, blue, and yellow fabric and layer colorful beads around their necks. Lekuton points to a small home at the edge of the village. "This is like my mother's hut," he says.
The American girls, plus some of their mothers and siblings, follow a dusty path to the brown Ewaso Nyiro river, carrying yellow jugs that read GOVERNMENT OF KENYA—RELIEF FOOD.
"Watch out for crocodiles," Lekuton says as the group wades in to collect water in the jugs.
To get to firewood, Lekuton tells them, they'll have to walk through the river to the other side.
A few of the mothers panic. One thinks she sees something popping out of the water and asks the Masai leader if crocodiles come out only at night. No, the leader tells her, they're out all day.
"Why aren't the Masai scared?" Devon, 14, asks her mother.
"It's a fact of life for them," she says, "like car accidents for us."
The girls still want to go. They've waited months to live in their teacher's world: He crossed rivers like this while herding cattle for his nomadic family. Lekuton, 35, is willing to abandon the river crossing, but nobody wants to disappoint him.
With their shoes in hand and Masai women beside them, the students and some mothers step into the river. The bottom is smooth and sandy. Lekuton follows with a machete.
"Mr. Lekuton, have you ever actually killed a lion?" one girl asks after they've reached the other side.
"Of course," he says.
MR. LEKUTON'S TRIP ALWAYS fills up quickly. Since 1996, he's invited students at McLean's Langley School to see Africa through his eyes.
For nine months of the year, Lekuton teaches social studies at Langley. He wears khakis, button-down shirts, and a Kenneth Cole watch. In the summer, he returns to the Masai village where he grew up. There he dresses like a warrior, in red cloth and beads, and sleeps on a cowhide skin.
Devon Maresco, an eighth-grader, persuaded her mother, Mollie, and her father, Rich, to take her on the two-week trip after graduation this year. She told them she'd get to see Mr. Lekuton's other life.
Her father, who owns Reico, a kitchen-and-bath company, was nervous. The US State Department had issued a travel warning for Kenya because of terrorist threats.
Lekuton assured the Marescos they'd be fine—the Langley families would have armed guards. Her parents signed up, along with 23 other families willing to pay $4,200 a person.
AS A BOY, LEMASOLAI Lekuton wondered about school. He'd passed the acacia tree where a white lady scribbled lessons on a chalkboard. He'd heard stories from boys in his village—a circle of cow-dung huts—who believed that the missionaries working at the school were cannibals. All that only heightened the six-year-old's curiosity.
His father, a village elder, thought school was useless. He wanted his four boys herding cattle. The village relied on the cows for milk and trade.
After the Kenyan government passed a law requiring each nomadic family to send one child to school, soldiers arrived in Lekuton's village, near Kenya's northern border, and insisted one of the boys enroll. Children had to be eight to attend school, so his family sent an older son, Lmatarion, who hated the classes. He hid for three days in a hyena hole. Reluctantly, their father allowed Lemasolai, who lied about his age, to go instead.
Lemasolai was wearing a nanga, a cloth tied at the shoulder, when he walked to the acacia tree the next morning. Esther, an American missionary, handed him a school uniform and a lollipop.
"Remove those clothes," a missionary told him. "The beads you're wearing—it's not right!"
After he changed, he unwrapped the candy, took a lick, and decided he'd never tasted anything so good. He stuffed the lollipop in the pocket of his new shorts.
He began lessons under the tree. He was discouraged from speaking Maa, the language of the Masai, and used a stick to practice writing the English alphabet in the dirt. He learned to count by stacking branches of a tree. His name, Lemasolai, meant "proud one." The missionaries baptized him and began calling him Joseph.
He completed first grade and spent the summer in his village, a mile away. He stopped wearing his uniform and slipped on his nanga and beads. He told his mother his new name. Every day he walked the cows until he couldn't see their ribs—a sign that they were full.
ON HIS TOUR OF the Langley School during a job interview in 1994, Lekuton and headmistress Betty Brown walked into a classroom of third-graders learning about Africa. The teacher had posted pen-pal letters from Kenya on the bulletin board. Lekuton knew some of the villages and the kids who had written.
He was offered the job on the spot—the second time in 35 years that Brown had wanted to hire a teacher so quickly. He would teach social studies.
"My name is Mr. Joseph Lekuton," he told the children on his first day. "I'm a warrior."
Nobody said anything.
Though Lekuton didn't have any training, he wasn't nervous. He set up the desks in rows, the way they did in Africa.
"I run a tight ship," he told his seventh-graders. In Kenya, teachers had whipped him for acting up. "Discipline is the most important thing in this class. Never talk back. Everyone is responsible for their work. No homework is missed."
He thought of what his college professors had told him. His favorite, a Somalian man who taught political science, always reminded him that he'd have to work twice as hard as everyone else.
"I'm going to exploit all your potential," Lekuton told his class. "An A is something you're not going to get easily."
The students sat silently as their teacher passed out textbooks and talked about their social-studies curriculum. Lekuton told them they'd learn every country and capital and feature on the world map.
He said, "You'll graduate from Langley knowing the world."
AT THE MISSIONARY SCHOOL, Lekuton sometimes woke at night not knowing where he was. The comfortable bunk bed in his dormitory, which the missionaries had built after his first year, didn't feel like the animal skin he was used to.
He got up at 5:30 in the morning when the prefect—a student in charge when teachers weren't around—started yelling. Lekuton swept classrooms and watered trees until class at 7. After a small meal of corn and beans—he once counted 15 beans—he played soccer using a wad of paper with a rope wrapped around it.
Lekuton liked the game because it helped him lose weight—he was sick of being called Kimbo, the name of an East African cooking fat. Defending himself against bullies usually landed him in trouble. He was used to the pinching man, a guy in the village who pinched kids' legs for misbehaving. Now he was getting whipped by the missionaries for fighting—so often that he started wearing extra shorts.
His family often broke down their village, stick by stick, and went in search of places with more grass for the cows. They'd rebuild their huts, sometimes 50 miles from Lekuton's school. His mother would walk miles to visit and bring him milk. When school ended, he had to find them. On one trip, he hid from elephants and ran from shiftas—poachers who kill animals and sometimes people. It once took him two weeks to find his family.
Lekuton brought books back to the village. He taught his brothers a little English and math. The boys he used to play with asked him what he did at school. "Sit in a chair and read," he said. They wanted to know what the food was like.
He showed his friends how to write their names in the dirt with a spear. What he'd learned from the missionaries made Lekuton feel different. So he cut arrows and skinned birds to make headpieces, just as his brothers did. He promised himself he would always put his culture first. At 13, he was circumcised in front of his village. He was now a warrior.
Lekuton started to think of teachers as gods. They taught him the Bible—and talked about America.
Sometimes he wasn't paying attention because he was thinking about his cows. But he was listening when the missionaries mentioned Harvard.
MONTHS WENT BY AND the Langley School's Betty Brown didn't hear a single complaint about her new hire. She got the feeling Lekuton was a natural.
Lekuton was impressed by how bright his students were. He'd deliver lectures on topics like the Constitution and the War of 1812 and stop mid-lesson to put kids on the spot and encourage them to participate. He loved that they often knew the answers to his questions. But he could also sense the privilege they'd grown up with.
After his first year, Lekuton's lessons sometimes deviated from social studies. Once he had students add up the cost of every item they were wearing—shoes, belts, eyeglasses, earrings.
"How much do socks cost?" one student asked his mother that night.
The rows of desks Lekuton had started with grew less fixed. One day his students found them in a semicircle. During that day's lesson, he tried to get the students thinking.
"What is a civilization?" he asked.
They struggled to answer.
"Are people who live in mansions in McLean more civilized than my mom, who lives in a cow-dung hut?"
In recent years, Lekuton has engaged his students in debates. Rather than lecturing on the War of 1812, he'll say to one student: "You're France—what do you think of this issue?" He'll point to another: "You're the US—what do you think?"
When a student complained about too much homework, he once said, "You didn't have to kill your own dinner."
Even though Langley had outlined a social-studies curriculum, Brown decided to let Lekuton be.
Parents grew curious. Their kids seemed to idolize Lekuton, who told stories of his Masai childhood that his students could recite themselves. Parents got used to hearing, "Today Mr. Lekuton said … ."
LEKUTON SAT ON THE CURB and stared at Kabarak Secondary School, one of Kenya's best private high schools. He'd spent an extra year in eighth grade studying for the national placement exam for high school, which landed him all A's—and admission to Kabarak.
He was intimidated by the grand columns and security gate. He'd arrived hours before in tattered clothes, carrying his nanga, after a 400-mile journey south from his village—he'd walked and hitched rides on cattle trucks. The guard waved him away.
The Kenyan government pays only for primary and middle school. His family didn't have the money to send him and didn't understand what school could do for him. In Lekuton's village, boys came back to herd cattle when they finished eighth grade. But villagers talked about how smart Lekuton was. "I'll buy you many cows," he told his mother.
His family put four cows up for sale in Nairobi to pay his school fees. "You better make it," his brother told him. "This is a big sacrifice."
Lekuton approached the guard again and showed him his letter of admission. He let him in. Most of the students inside had grown up with televisions, which Lekuton hadn't seen, and things like electricity and running water.
"We're herdsmen," he'd tell kids who asked about his family. Many classmates wrote him off, calling him Mshamba, or village boy.
Lekuton often woke at 4:30 in the morning to study. He took classes until dinner—with a break to play sports—then studied until 10. His second year, he returned to school a few shillings short on his tuition and was sent home. He went to a nearby army base and begged the enlisted Masai for enough shillings to return. His third year, there was a drought in the north and all his family's cows died. He'd have to leave at the end of the term.
One evening on the way back from soccer, Kenyan President Daniel Toritich arap Moi, who sponsored the school and lived nearby, pulled up alongside Lekuton.
"You have a game against the minister of education's school next week," Moi said. "You must win."
During the game, Kabarak was losing by two. Desperate to impress the president, Lekuton took a turn at offense and scored two goals—and then a third. After the win, Moi asked Lekuton to join him for dinner.
They sat at opposite ends of a long table. Servants brought food. At school Lekuton ate with his fingers; with Moi, he used a knife and fork. They talked about school.
"Come," Moi said, motioning to Lekuton. He asked what he could do for the boy.
Lekuton told him about the drought: "We have no cows left to sell."
Moi phoned the headmaster. "As long as this young man wants to study," he said, "I'll take care of his fees."
LEKUTON WOULDN'T LET A Langley student be laughed at. The day before, Brian Finn was playing touch football on the soccer field and ran into a goalpost. He hit his head and fell. Students were teasing him.
Lekuton told the class, "He took it like a warrior."
Kids would stay after class or eat lunch with Lekuton to talk about Kenya or American culture. Sometimes he would shoot baskets using a trash can as a hoop.
Lekuton grew close to Betty Brown. With his family so out of reach—Masai villages have no phones—he began calling Brown his American mom. She once asked when his birthday was. He said he didn't know—the Masai don't record birthdays, so he can only estimate his age. He was about 27.
Lekuton reserved summers for Kenya. The freedom to return to his village and live with his mother for three months was why Lekuton had decided to teach. In 1996, he asked Brown and her husband to come. He invited a few other families, including Brian Finn's.
Finn and his classmates returned with lots of stories: They visited a poor school where Masai children danced. They met Lekuton's mother, who gave Brown a necklace she had beaded herself.
As word spread, more families wanted to follow Lekuton to Africa. Finn and other students had come back with an appreciation of the developing world, which struck a chord with parents concerned that their children lived in a bubble.
WHEN LEKUTON GOT TO his college interview, he smelled like cows. He'd spent two days standing in the back of a cattle truck as it drove from his village to Nairobi. He'd been working at a bank—a job President Moi had helped him get after Lekuton graduated from Kabarak—when an American man walked in with a group of students wearing St. Lawrence University shirts. The man worked with a program that gave scholarships to African students so they could study in America.
Lekuton didn't know it, but one of his friends had sent the man into the bank. Lekuton told the man he'd taken the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language and had been accepted to some American schools—but he didn't have the money to go.
When the acceptance letter from St. Lawrence arrived months later, his villagers sold 50 cows so he could buy a plane ticket. He thought he'd study something like economics at the school in New York and bring what he learned back to Kenya.
"It's the white people's land," Lekuton told his mother, who thought America was on the other side of Nairobi. She was used to her son leaving a lot, but he always came back. She knew Lekuton was going somewhere to gain knowledge.
His brothers didn't understand what he was doing. Some villagers did. They warned him that some people go to America and never come back.
"Don't be one of them," they told him.
A FEW LANGLEY STUDENTS are eating cream-of-carrot soup in a dining room with beamed ceilings in northern Kenya. They're ordering sodas to go with their lunch and talking about their favorite hip-hop songs. In a couple of days they'll visit a school and a village.
They're glad to be out of the vans. The six-hour drive between Amboseli, where they watched elephants walk through the grass, and the luxurious Mount Kenya Safari Club, where they're now staying, was long. There wasn't much leg room. The bumps in the dirt roads made it hard to read. Opening the windows invited clouds of dust.
"A four-year-old chased the car," says Michael Gorrell, who will be an eighth-grader in the fall. This is his second trip to Kenya.
"I saw a little boy being whipped," Michael Guberman adds. He's going into seventh grade.
"Everybody told me that I was going to be shocked, but I didn't believe them," Guberman says. "Some people can't afford a Coke." He's drinking one.
"At red lights in Nairobi, a woman came by with her baby," Gorrell says. "She was around our age. She asked for money."
"We said we didn't have any," Guberman says. "Why can't we bear to give them a hundred shillings? It's like a buck."
They say their parents told them not to give money because peddlers might swarm the cars. Handing out money is different from trading or buying from villagers who stand outside the vans with wooden masks and jewelry.
Gorrell is still thinking about the woman. "You just got this feeling," he says. "What if everybody had given her a little bit of money? Where would she be right now?"
"Parents don't understand how hard it is to watch other kids beg for money," he says later.
"I never noticed how spoiled we are," Guberman says. "We drive by with our CD players and MP3s."
After Gorrell's last trip, he almost threw a temper tantrum when his parents wouldn't buy the cleats he wanted, but then he thought of Kenya.
"What do they have? Shoes—if at all," says Gorrell, who's wearing orange Nikes. "They're happy to have shoes."
LEKUTON THOUGHT MONEY GREW on trees in America. He'd been told women carried guns in their purses. He got on the plane to New York in August 1990 wearing a $5 black wool suit. He'd seen only small missionary planes, so he thought it would be a miracle if such a huge one got up in the air. He was so nervous that he hadn't eaten in two days.
On the plane, Lekuton wondered what people at St. Lawrence would think of his accent and how he'd compete with American students.
He studied the white man in the seat next to him. "I'm from northern Kenya," Lekuton said.
The man was from Ohio.
Lekuton said, "I know all of the 50 states." He started reciting capitals.
The man ordered beef, so Lekuton did, too. When the man poked at his meal, said he hated it, and pushed it aside, Lekuton did the same.
They were seated next to each other again after they changed planes in London. Lekuton knew the man wouldn't be eating, and that meant he wouldn't either.
It was hot when Lekuton landed at JFK Airport, but he felt good in his wool suit. Lekuton thought people were staring at him. He assumed they were admiring his suit.
Two women from St. Lawrence's international house were waiting at the airport in Syracuse. They held a sign that read JOSEPH LEKUTON, WELCOME TO AMERICA. They asked if he was hungry. He said no. It's a sign of weakness for a warrior to accept food from a woman. He would wait.
As they drove to St. Lawrence, Lekuton noticed how smooth the roads felt. When they stopped at McDonald's, he gave in.
"Chips, chips!" he said, meaning French fries. "I want chips."
LANGLEY STUDENTS DANIEL KANTER and his twin sister, Laura, arrive at Lorabae Primary School on a dirt drive lined with rows of singing Kenyan children. They step out of one of a dozen vans that are dropping off American students and their families for the day. They settle into desks placed in front of a school building that has concrete classrooms with bars on open windows.
Lekuton stands in front of the group and thanks Lorabae's headmaster for having them.
"I was like one of these guys," he says, pointing to the Kenyan children. The girls wear blue dresses, and the boys have on shorts and orange shirts. Some are without shoes. They walk miles to school.
Lekuton leads his Langley students to two holes in the ground behind the school. "They don't have latrines," he says.
The Americans are there to build an outhouse and paint classrooms. Earlier in the year, Langley second-graders held a flea market to raise money. The $1,000 collected bought wood, tools, paint, and brushes. Daniel's classmates also brought suitcases filled with clothes and school supplies.
C.J. Queenan, a seventh-grader, jumps into the latrine hole and digs while parents begin constructing an outhouse. One mother spreads peanut butter on crackers and hands them out as Kenyan children crowd around. They eat only once a day. A line forms around another mother snapping Polaroids. Many Masai children have seen their reflections only in the river.
Daniel follows Devon and several other Langley students into a classroom to paint. They stand on one side of the room facing the African kids. There are no paintbrushes left, so the Kenyans and Americans have nothing to do.
A long silence.
Finally, an older Kenyan girl steps forward. "Welcome," she says. "My name is Judy."
LEKUTON SIGNED UP FOR American history his freshman year at St. Lawrence. He liked studying the Federalist Papers and learning about how Americans had sat down to design a Constitution.
He didn't feel homesick until it got cold in upstate New York. St. Lawrence got its first dusting of snow in October—winters in Lekuton's village don't get much below 60 degrees.
He had brought everything he owned in two suitcases. His clothes were torn. On his first day of classes, a friend asked why he was wearing the wool suit.
"Everyone in New York loved it," Lekuton told him.
"Maybe they were laughing at you," the friend said, then took him out to buy shorts.
Lekuton saw other students spending $200 on a few dinners and drinks—$200 was everything he had. He got a job in the school library and never went out at night. He didn't have pictures to put on his walls. He spent his free time reading. He was becoming fluent in English, but he couldn't pronounce everything and sometimes didn't get jokes.
He noticed that a young man from Switzerland who lived in his dorm always wore jeans with holes. Lekuton called some friends together for a meeting in the library to talk about it.
"In my community," Lekuton said, "if you have someone who is poor, you help him. I don't have much, but I have two dollars."
"Joseph, are you out of your mind?" someone said. "He's one of the richest kids in the school."
DANIEL AND HIS LANGLEY friends stay quiet. Someone in the classroom whispers, "Say something."
Devon, an American girl who's been making friendship bracelets to give to the Kenyans, introduces herself to the group gathered around her. She says she just finished eighth grade. Judy says she's 16. Her family can't afford high school, so she's repeating eighth grade. She doesn't want to return to her village to cook and wash clothes.
The Kenyans have lots of questions. How big are classes in America? Is school free? Judy says she wants to be like Mr. Lekuton.
One Langley boy sees a rock in the classroom and kicks it. A Kenyan boy stops it with his bare foot and returns it. Soon Langley student Michael Gorrell joins in and they start playing soccer.
In a corner, Daniel stands with a Kenyan boy who is wearing donated women's sandals. The boy calls Daniel his best friend.
"Can I give you a tour of our school?" he asks, and Daniel nods. Afterward Daniel flips through the Kenyan boy's lesson books. The boy smiles when Daniel compliments him on his scientific drawings.
Daniel's new friend takes off his beaded necklace and hands it to Daniel along with his address.
"I want to give you a gift, too," Daniel tells the boy. He goes to his van and hands him a copy of Jurassic Park.
LEKUTON WENT HOME FOR the summer after his freshman year of college. On the way to his village, he drove through the small towns he'd seen many times before. He noticed something different—desperation in the villagers' faces. He'd never considered himself poor, but he couldn't help comparing his country with America.
Back at St. Lawrence in the fall, Lekuton kept studying. He began to connect with people. He moved into a new dorm and started going to parties. He went ice-skating. A history classmate told him about a fraternity, and Lekuton became an unofficial frat brother. He saw people doing beer funnels and smoking pot. He wondered if American students studied enough.
Lekuton finished his degree in economics and government in three years and stayed another year for a master's. After a yearlong fellowship in Tanzania and Botswana, where he studied the economics of livestock, he went to a job-placement agency at St. Lawrence. The agency sent his résumé to private schools along the East Coast.
Betty Brown was sitting on a bus when she read Lekuton's application. His phone rang in his dorm room soon after.
A FEW DAYS INTO the Langley trip, Lekuton drives his Range Rover to visit a secondary school in Kimana.
A frail boy about five years old herds cattle near the roadside. His legs are covered in dirt. Lekuton pulls over and asks him when he last ate. Three days ago, the boy says.
The land is unusually dry. The cows are skinny. Lekuton can tell the village is having a drought. He tells the boy to get his mother. The boy takes off through some bushes to a grouping of huts. His mother, who wears a blue cloth around her shoulder and nothing on her feet, comes back with him. Three other little boys follow.
"How long have your children gone without food?" Lekuton asks. She tells him they're hungry, and he hands her some money. For several seconds, she can't seem to speak. She thanks Lekuton and asks her son to do the same.
The boy, Lekuton says, is now a hero. His mother can walk the 12 miles to town—she'll go through the bushes so it's faster—and buy corn, porridge, and tea for her family. The 800 shillings, about $10, should feed the family for at least a week.
In a van behind the Range Rover, Anne Evans and Cathy Gorrell are eager to tour the school. They are two of the McLean mothers who, in June 2000, sat on the beach in Mombasa talking about the Kenyan educational system. It was the last night of their trip. Evans and Gorrell, along with Ricki Kanter and Becky Hudecek, had visited two schools. They'd seen 70 kids in one classroom, five sharing a desk. They'd seen a 20-year-old in a class with grade-schoolers.
The women were talking about how nomadic kids don't have a chance unless the stars align the way they did for Lekuton. They were thinking about a way to thank him for bringing them to Africa and for everything he'd taught their children.
The mothers had learned that it cost about $600 a year to put a nomadic child through high school. They could do that.
LEKUTON CALLS THE LANGLEY community his tribe. They miss him each summer when he goes back to Kenya—and he misses them. One summer, his mother stitched KENYA LOVES LANGLEY AND BETTY on a dried goat skin. It hangs in Betty Brown's house.
During the school year, Lekuton is often invited to his students' homes for dinner. One family lent him their house on Nantucket for a week. Parents invite him to Wizards games. When his car broke down, he called Brian Finn's mother, Jackie, and she let him borrow a car.
Lekuton keeps his one-bedroom apartment near Tysons Corner dimly lit, like his mother's hut. Otherwise, he lives like many American bachelors. His movie collection includes The Matrix and Coming to America. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor, and his refrigerator sometimes contains nothing but milk and ketchup.
Langley mothers speculate about his love life. If they ask, he laughs and changes the subject.
Few question him as a teacher. "He makes the kids be what he sees in them," says Rocky Zotter, whose son, Brendan, was in Lekuton's class last year.
She was surprised when Lekuton commented on her son's maturity. "I am mature," he told his mother, "when I'm with Joseph."
ABOUT A MILE OUTSIDE the town of Kimana, past wandering dogs, tall sunflowers, and a small stone church, is a rusted sign that reads KIMANA SECONDARY SCHOOL: BUMPS AHEAD. On the gate is a symbol with the school's motto, "God is our light."
Anne Evans and Cathy Gorrell hop out of their van. They've waited months to see Abraham, Jackson, Everlyne, and Grace—four of the 50 students that the Nomadic Kenyan Children's Educational Fund is putting through high school with a scholarship in Lekuton's name.
The two women, along with Kanter and Hudecek, started the nonprofit after they got back from Mombasa in 2000. Lekuton, who'd never asked them for anything, didn't realize how serious they were.
They had deep pockets. Gorrell's husband, Warren, heads the law firm Hogan & Hartson. Evans's husband is CEO of a division of Verizon. Kanter's husband is a venture capitalist whose family runs a foundation. All four women were volunteers and board members. The families put up about $18,000 to help get the organization off the ground.
Their kids helped out. One designed the Web site. Others sent out mailings and press packets. A friend of the Kanters' volunteered legal work, which helped jump-start the group—nobody wanted to spend thousands on legal fees when that money could go toward educating children.
Many Langley families, including some who'd been to Kenya, signed up to help. The women talked about bringing kids to America, but Lekuton helped them realize the money would go further in Kenyan schools.
Headmaster Joel Ole LeShao is happy to have Evans and Gorrell in his office. More than half of his students are nomadic. Many are having trouble paying their school fees. "There are high numbers of people who want to educate their kids," he tells them.
"We would accept applications from other students," Evans says. "We want your help—to give us the children who have the most potential. Give us a history of the child, their grades, and then have them write to us."
"When we have more kids than we have money," she continues, "we'll just raise more."
WHEN LEKUTON DECIDED HE wanted to pursue a second master's degree at Harvard in 2002, he wrote his application essay in his mother's hut.
His mother didn't understand what Harvard was. She knew only that Lekuton, who had bought her 50 cows and drove a car like the white man, had done great things. His brother told him, "Now I wish I didn't hide in the hyena hole."
Lekuton hadn't thought of how he'd pay for his Harvard degree in international education policy. He wasn't a US resident, so he couldn't get financial aid. Langley parents began raising money for his tuition. Around the same time, Langley's board created a sabbatical fund so teachers could further their studies. Lekuton was one of its first recipients. It awarded him living expenses when he enrolled at Harvard two years ago.
Lekuton has inspired large donations to help Kenya, and in the beginning, some of the Langley community worried that the parents' generosity might affect how much money they gave to the school's endowment.
Lekuton raised enough to build a dormitory for nomadic children at a primary school. Langley parent Anthony Welters, CEO of Americhoice, arranged for his company to donate computers for a technology lab at Kabarak. Welters and other parents funded a water-purification project in Lekuton's village and many others. In 2001, the Kenyan government gave Lekuton the Order of the Grand Warrior award, the country's highest honor for humanitarian work.
Some parents have friendships with Kenyans and send money to those they've met on trips. Jackie Finn got a letter from a woman who said she'd named her children after Finn's sons.
A family who went to Kenya in 2002 flew a young Masai girl with a serious heart condition to Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children. A cardiologist who was also on the trip agreed to treat her. The girl is now healthy and doing well in school.
HEADMASTER LESHAO EXPLAINS that years ago few nomadic parents had the vision to send their children to schools like Kimana. Now there are more role models and more demand.
He leads Evans and Gorrell on a tour of the school grounds. The only books in the library are outdated. In a girls' dormitory, nine bunk beds, each with a thin mattress, are crammed into a tiny room. LeShao explains that watchmen stand outside the dorms to keep the boys out.
Standing in an arched hallway outside LeShao's office, the women shake hands with Abraham. He's wearing his uniform: a maroon sweater with a tie. He stands awkwardly against the wall with Evans and Gorrell—he's not used to posing for pictures. They take a second Polaroid of Abraham alone so he can give one to his parents.
Abraham herds cattle and goats when he's home for school vacations. Because his parents didn't have to pay for his schooling this year, they used the money for farm equipment. He knows his parents are expecting good things of him. His sponsors tell him they are, too.
Evans asks what he'd like to do. Abraham responds, in a British accent, that he'd like to be a lawyer. He's keeping his grades up, and Evans tells him that the Nomadic Kenyan Children's Educational Fund will pay his tuition until he graduates.
"Thank you," Abraham says.
Until today, Evans and Gorrell had only read applications and sent checks. Communication isn't easy. Few schools have Internet access. Mail takes months. The women have depended on a few trusted sources to learn of students they might fund. Now they can put faces to some of the names.
Later, Abraham stands alone in the arched hallway at Kimana holding a case of school supplies, which Evans and Gorrell gave him. Today, he says, he has made new friends. He also spoke to Lekuton, whom he'd heard of.
"Work very hard," Lekuton told him.
"I promise," Abraham said. "I will."
A FEW WEEKS BEFORE the June 2004 trip, suitcases were lined up in Cathy Feehan's driveway in a gated community in McLean. Bags of clothes had been packed by Lekuton's current and former students.
This was the third year the informal group had gathered for the Clothes for Kenya packing party. Each family traveling with Lekuton would bring an extra suitcase of clothes donated by a high school in Middleburg. Lekuton knows a family there.
Colin Feehan, who will attend the University of Notre Dame in the fall, wore a PREP VS. LANDON T-shirt. He went to Kenya in 2000. It was the first time he'd seen poverty face to face.
"It made me realize I had to give back," he said.
He has since volunteered for a Jesuit refugee organization and traveled to Ecuador and Peru. He spent a summer at an Indian reservation in South Dakota.
Lekuton keeps in touch with former students. At Harvard, he often met up with Brian Finn, an undergraduate there. Finn chose his major based on his experiences in Kenya. He's studying the economics of Third World countries.
Few Masai children had shoes when Alison Serota visited Kenya in 2002. The situation inspired Alison, who is beginning her freshman year at the Madeira School, to start Shoes for Kenyan Kids. Last spring, she put donation boxes around Langley.
Some former students are reminded of Africa unexpectedly. When two high-schoolers saw piles of textbooks in the dumpster outside of Georgetown Day School, they climbed in and collected them.
"We can't let them get thrown away," they told their mothers, picturing how scarce resources were at a nomadic school they had visited.
One of the students had an assignment to write a story about a journey where he was transformed. He imagined himself a teacher living in a cow-dung hut and leaving Kenya to go to America.
Lekuton's former student Emily Sherman, a junior at the Flint Hill School, was also at the packing party. "I just remember coming back and looking at my house," she said. "I know they would dream of living in my house."
She wants to major in African studies when she gets to college. "We bring a lot," she said, "but we bring ten times more back."
C.J. QUEENAN HAS BEEN waiting months to walk the cows. He peels off his shirt and watches Lekuton demonstrate how to crisscross strands of beads across his chest. He ties a red nanga over his shorts. Two warriors, whose earlobes are stretched into large hollow circles, paint orange stripes on his cheeks. C.J. carries a spear. It's just after dawn.
For the first time Lekuton is letting his students herd cattle. C.J. is taking the honor seriously.
The boys follow the warriors across a deep river and walk to a village. The cows shift as the group approaches. Everyone is invited to duck into one of the warrior's huts, which the kids report is dark and tiny and smells of dung.
The herding starts off easy. The sun is low and the terrain level. Some of the American boys tap the cows on the back with their spears to keep them walking.
"These cows belong to someone," a Masai herder tells them. "You can whistle and pet them, but please don't hit them."
At 10, the group takes a break. They watch a warrior brush his teeth with a branch from the sokonoi tree. Chris Earp, who's going into eighth grade, sits next to the elder Masai and makes friends. He examines the man's club. Then Chris unzips his backpack and hands him a gift—sunglasses, which the man tries on. The Masai laugh.
After traversing a low mountain and walking about five miles, some of the boys say they're bored. "I get the point," one says. "I want to go swim in the pool."
The elder Masai uses a cell phone, which Lekuton gave him for emergencies, and tries to explain to the teacher where they are. As they wait for the vans to find them, an eighth-grader takes out a video game and shows a herder how to play. Chris gives away his Teva sandals.
C.J. is Lekuton's only student who walks the five miles back. Along the way, he watches a warrior drink from the riverbank while another bathes nearby. He wonders what the Masai thought of his classmates who left.
"They take their cows out every day," he says of the Masai, "and they don't have the option to go back and swim in the pool."
THE LANGLEY STUDENTS KNOW what to expect at Kabarak. They've read about the school in Lekuton's memoir, Facing the Lion, a children's book published last year by National Geographic. Lekuton presents Kabarak's headmaster with copies. The Kenyan students surround Lekuton to get a look. He holds it high as he inscribes it.
Lekuton doesn't ask his students many questions on the trip. He likes to let things sink in. But before the girls leave for the dormitories, he calls them over to a table in the cafeteria and asks what they've learned.
One says she has realized she complains too much—she has never heard a Masai do that.
"I guess sometimes when you have so much, you forget what you don't have," Lekuton says. "Everything counts for them. If they have bread in the morning, heaven opens up. Three meals? They smile all day. Their lions are a lot bigger than ours."
Devon and her little sister, Delia, walk to the room they're sharing with six Kenyan students in a brick building. The girls start talking about dating, classes, and music. One girl flops down on the lower bunk next to them. Others pull up desk chairs.
One Kenyan girl says she'd like to go to Harvard to study medicine. Another says she just wants to get to America.
"Do you miss home?" someone asks the Langley girls.
"A little," Devon says.
"Are there poor people?
"We live in the suburbs," Devon explains. There's a really nice part of McLean, she says, where there are "humongous houses," but you can also go into Washington, DC, and find homeless people.
At 11:30, the Kabarak girls are flipping through copies of YM and In Touch Weekly that the Americans brought. Devon falls asleep while a Kenyan girl listens to her iPod. She wakes at 4:30 AM when her hosts get up to study and pray. She can sleep for another hour if she wants, but she gets dressed. Lekuton has told his students that his "number-one enemy is laziness."
The dorm room is spotless. The Kenyan girls have placed Devon's backpack, with her iPod in it, next to her bed. Some of them are scrubbing the bathroom.
"We were having trouble seeing straight, and they were studying," Devon says. She didn't realize how devoted they'd be to school.
"They have huge hopes and dreams," she says.
ON THEIR LAST NIGHT in the Masai Mara, the Langley families are eating dinner at a clearing close to their lodge, near the Tanzanian border. Flaming torches, to scare off lions, surround their tables. Lekuton shows students the outline of hippos nearby.
Masai warriors jump out of the bushes chanting and dancing. Lekuton isn't dressed in his nanga, but he dances with the warriors. He huffs rhythmically, pushing his head back and forth, making the sound he was given at his circumcision ceremony. Every warrior has a sound that marks him.
After the warriors finish dancing, Lekuton says that his students want to speak. Devon looks confident when she steps forward. Two weeks ago, she felt less sure of herself. She says she has realized she's more of a risk taker. She has learned more about herself than she'd expected.
Chris puts his hand on Lekuton's arm. "You're not that tall," he tells Lekuton, "but whoever you meet, you stand a foot taller." Earlier Chris had said that if he ever heard anyone at home complain about school, he'd tell him what school is like in Kenya.
Michael Guberman is chanting: "Mr. Lekuton for president!" Their teacher's political aspirations are no secret. In the next few years, Lekuton plans to return to Kenya and run for parliament.
Devon's father, Rich, who was skeptical about going to Kenya, hands Lekuton an envelope with $5,800 in it. It's a group donation. The parents want him to use it to help his fellow tribesmen.
One family on the trip asked Lekuton about adopting. A few others approached Cathy Gorrell and Anne Evans about sponsoring children through the educational fund. The group's work is appreciated: Councils in the nomadic north and south bought the women a gift of two cows.
EVANS HOPES TO AWARD a Joseph Lekuton scholarship to one child in particular. She met him while taking Polaroids at a village. As Masai children crowded around, she noticed that this boy began to organize the others into a line so they wouldn't overwhelm her.
Unlike the other children in his village, the boy wore cargo shorts and spoke English with an American accent. He told her he attends Sekenani Primary School.
Evans noticed how bright he seemed. It's rare, she thought, to see such natural leadership. She asked the boy his name.
The day after the torch-lit dinner, the vans drive past the same village on their way to Nairobi. "There he is," Evans says to her daughter, Sarah.
She points to a boy herding cattle along the roadside. He smiles and waves. His name is Joseph.