I’ll begin by reading from my book Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna:
During the middle of the night, I woke to this huge sound—like rain, but not really like rain. I looked up. The starlight was gone, clouds were everywhere, and there was a drizzle falling. But that wasn’t the sound. The sound was all of the cows starting to pee. All of them, in every direction. And that is the sign of a lion. A hyena doesn’t make them do that. An elephant doesn’t make them do that. A person doesn’t. Only a lion. We knew right away that a lion was about to attack us.
I wrote this as a memoir about a small village in northern Kenya where my mother still lives in a cow-dung hut. She’s never seen a television, a radio, or a telephone. I wrote it to describe my growing up in a nomadic environment where, without cows, any Maasai is like a zebra without stripes. Everyone wants to own as many cows as possible. It is the same cow that helped me come to America: I got a full scholarship to come to the United States to study but I didn’t have airfare. So the village got together—some gave a cow, some gave a goat, some gave a sheep. They sold all those animals and bought me a ticket to come here.
It is in one of those cow camps where I faced my first lion. We all have our own lions; everyone here has a lion. The first one was a real lion that I faced with my spear and my club. I’m always trying, in my books, to tell American kids that you must face your lions; you cannot run away from them. The challenges that are constantly in front of American kids—from the cutthroat competition, to drugs, to peer pressure, everything—those are the lions American kids face. I attempt to tell my story of my own lion, that journey from there to here.
In Kenya, I went to school because it was forced on us. The government came and told us that each father must send one child to school or go to jail. So I will read the part of my book that describes the day that started the journey that eventually led me to the United States.
The way the government people reckoned a child’s age was to ask him to lift his arm, reach over the top of his head, and touch his opposite ear. A small child can’t do that: His arms are too short. So they asked me, “Touch!” and I stretched, put everything into it, and just about reached—or at least got close enough to satisfy the police. It solved the problem for them and my father and my brothers.
I have two older brothers and my father pointed at brother number two, and the next morning he ran and hid behind a dam. For my brother, going to school was horrible, and he said he’d rather be beaten than go to school. So they found him and brought him back. He was so small, a lot of hair, chubby. They told my father, “Choose one,” and he chose me—there was no one else. The villagers said, “There’s something called jail, and it’s very bad. If your father refuses, they’ll take him to jail and he’ll never come back to the village.” So I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going.”
The next day I went to missionary school, where there was an American lady from California. The first thing this lady did was give me candy, and that was it. I had never eaten candy before in my life, so it was like magic. I stayed. And every morning I went there to get more. But in Kenya school closes every three months, and you have to go look for your family, who can be as far as fifty miles away. By the time I was ten, I was walking twenty miles by myself in the middle of the savannah with my small spear to look for my family every three months. I would sleep in trees in case there were wild animals, and I would eat small game and wild fruits, and keep looking until I found my family. Very tough life. There have been kids trampled by elephants. Animals are everywhere and you have to be very smart to avoid them.
In Kenya, the Maasai is always the bottom stratum in education. We don’t have good education because we don’t value it. So when I went to high school, I was looked down upon as a Maasai, a herdsman. People said, “What does your family do?” and I would say, “We have cows,” and for me, it was such a pride to say. Other students would say, “What? Cows?” And you grow up with that. One thing I always say in my book is that you’ve got to be proud of your culture. My brothers have a lot of cows and each cow has a name, each of them. You can have two hundred cows and each one has a name. When the cows came come home in the evening, my brother stands on a small raised place, and in two minutes he knows which one is missing. That’s incredible knowledge.
Two years ago I graduated from Harvard, and in the Harvard Gazette, they wrote about my graduation and how the only graduate whose parents are not proud today is me. It’s true, because they don’t know what it is. My mother cannot comprehend what school is. She has no idea. How can you know what a degree is if you do not know what a television is, or a radio, or an amusement park. I have pictures in my book of my mom. If she saw the book, she would say, “Oh, this is me.” That’s all she knows about the book.
CORNELIA FUNKE: So how does it feel for her to be in the book?
LEKUTON: She doesn’t know what a book is. I show her and she says, “Oh.” Don’t think she isn’t proud of me. She sits with all the women in the evening making beads and every time the radio says “overseas,” she says, “Oh, my son went over the water.”
FUNKE: Tell us about the Pinching Man.
At home every village has a Pinching Man, who disciplines all the kids. The Pinching Man is this guy with a long beard, very dirty, and he chews tobacco all the time. He makes sure the tobacco saliva comes onto his beard. His nails are long and dirty. I don’t know how many times I cried before I ever got pinched. Looking at him is scary. In every village, there is one.
FUNKE: I have to ask you, how do you become a Pinching Man?
LEKUTON: You have to fit that image. I’ll tell you a good story about the Pinching Man. I was seven or eight, and every kid had a responsibility. Mine was to bring the cows out a mile away from village in the savannah, all the little cows. You have to take care of them and make sure they eat the grass well and then bring them home to the village. I told a man, “Listen. I’ve not seen a friend of mine who’s four miles away in the middle of the savannah. Can you take care of my cows today and tomorrow and I will return the favor?” So he said, “Okay, go.” I started running, and I was really, really chubby, but I didn’t care. I kept running.
I met face to face with the Pinching Man, and he looked at me and his hands came out, and I wanted to die before he pinched me. He said, “Where are you going?”
I had to make up something quickly. I said, “My mother asked for sugar.”
He said, “At this time?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Go to your mother’s hut.”
This was not good because my mom expected me to be with the cows from six in the morning until six at night, no lunch in between. I said, “Okay, bye.” So he took off. I waited until he went around the corner. So I thought, I can’t go on the lane because there’s only one path. If I cut through the bushes, I could be killed by an elephant. I decided I’d rather be killed by an elephant than run into him again, so I cut through the bushes, ran to the village, and before he got there—he was such a slow guy, he took his time—I went and told my mom everything. She said, “You’re a very bad kid.” I said, “It won’t happen again.” The Pinching Man came and said, “How are you?” And my mother said, “I’m doing well. Come in.” He said, “By the way, I saw your son running. Did you send him to get some sugar?” She said, “Yes, I did.” So she covered for me.
But not all the time. I liked imitating people when I was small. And one day, I was imitating a warrior and said, “Who struts like this?” I made fun of him all day, and the kids were laughing. All the boys had taken an oath—the moment you’re seven, no one knows what you do as boys because that’s how you train yourselves to be warriors. No one knows your secrets. It’s is a fraternity between warriors. But I had a cousin in the group, and she told the warrior what I did. I was inside my mother’s hut and the warrior came in the evening after all the cows came home.
I came right out and said, “Where do you want me to go?” because I loved for people to send me to go get things for them.
He said, “Come here.” We went to the bushes and he had a long, thin branch tied around his waist and I didn’t see it. I said, “Where do you want me to go? Which village? Tell me; I’ll run.”
He told me, “Come here. You’ve been making fun of me all day.” He took this whip and whacked me everywhere. My mom was in the hut, listening. So after that, I called a meeting with all the boys because I didn’t realize my cousin-sister told on me. That’s a big part of being a Maasai child: You cannot disrespect an elder and everyone has a right to correct you. Every village has a Pinching Man. You grow up as a child of the village. The village becomes you and you become the village.
Getting ready to come to America, to go over the water, I was very scared. I was afraid of what would happen to me. I worked so hard in Kenya to get good enough grades to come to America, and I was told, “America is very dangerous—many dangerous things. The most dangerous are the women.”
So I said, “Yeah? How?”
“Because the little bags women carry. They have guns this small, and if you scare them they shoot you.”
So I spent whole month, when I went to college, looking at the ground when I saw girls.
Someone also told me that you have to be well dressed in America, because if you don’t, then everyone will laugh at you. So I said, “How can I make an impression?” I went and bought myself a three-piece woolen suit. It was ninety-two degrees in New York. I was walking around JFK airport, and feeling very good in my suit, very proud, and people were staring at me. I was thinking, Hey, I made the right choice—they really like my suit.
I say this here because I want to put a human face on Africa. I tell my students: Close your eyes and tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Africa. Only animals and forests. No human beings. I wrote my book because I want people to understand that Africans love their culture. I decided to show them my journeys, and every summer I bring one to Kenya. It’s part of teaching; it’s a part of extending that culture from there to here.
CORNELIA FUNKE: This is from Inkheart.
Rain fell that night, a fine whispering rain. Many years later, Meggie had only to close her eyes and she could still hear it, like tiny fingers tapping on the windowpane. A dog barked somewhere in the darkness, and however often she tossed and turned Meggie couldn’t get to sleep.
The book she had been reading was under her pillow, pressing its cover against her ear as if to lure her back into its printed pages. “I’m sure it must be very comfortable sleeping with a hard, rectangular thing like that under your head,” her father had teased the first time he found a book under her pillow. “Go on, admit it, the book whispers its story to you at night.”
“Sometimes, yes,” Meggie had said. “But it only works for children.” Which made Mo tweak her nose. Mo. Meggie had never called her father anything else.
That night—when so much began and so many things changed forever—Meggie had one of her favorite books under her pillow, and since the rain wouldn’t let her sleep she sat up, rubbed the drowsiness from her eyes, and took it out. Its pages rustled promisingly when she opened it. Meggie thought this first whisper sounded a little different from one book to another, depending on whether or not she already knew the story it was going to tell her. But she needed light. She had a box of matches hidden in the drawer of her bedside table. Mo had forbidden her to light candles at night. He didn’t like fire. “Fire devours books,” he always said, but she was twelve years old, she surely could be trusted to keep an eye on a couple of candle flames. Meggie loved to read by candlelight. She had five candlesticks on the windowsill, and she was just holding the lighted match to one of the black wicks when she heard footsteps outside. She blew out the match in alarm—oh, how well she remembered it, even many years later—and knelt to look out of the window, which was wet with rain. Then she saw him.
The rain cast a kind of pallor on the darkness, and the stranger was little more than a shadow. Only his face gleamed white as he looked up at Meggie. His hair clung to his wet forehead. The rain was falling on him, but he ignored it. He stood there motionless, arms crossed over his chest as if that might at least warm him a little. And he kept on staring at the house.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You speak very good English, yet you write in German. How does it feel to read your work in translation?
FUNKE: I love to taste English on my tongue. I take delight in it. I love the language. I think it’s a very singing one. It’s quite different than German. You have to work hard to make German sing. You can do it, but it’s very hard.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I find it interesting that both of you started with rain, or what seemed like rain.
FUNKE: Yes, Lemasolai said to me, “In my country the people are so happy when they hear the sound of rain.” I come from a northern country, and for us, it means gloominess, fog, melancholy. It means too much rain. If he were to tell my story to an African child, the child would think, She must be so happy. I would have to use a different image.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But actually my question is about the cows. What are their names? Are they named after plants?
LEKUTON: No. They’re named mostly after mountains and hills and rivers. Every cow knows its name. When you call it, it will come to you. My brother is very good with them. He knows everything about them. It can be middle of the night, pitch black, five hundred cows, and he just goes and touches and knows the cow’s name. He knows everything. Right now, I have a student who started a program called Cows for Kids. We’re trying to buy cows for those children who have lost a cow because of drought. If you don’t have a cow, you’re nothing. These kids will go to school and other kids will ask them, “How many cows do you have?” If you say none, you’re crushed. You have no dignity.
FUNKE: How much money do you need for a cow?
LEKUTON: One hundred dollars for a cow.
So now we’re buying cows in Ethiopia. They have to be driven from Ethiopia to where I am—two hundred miles. We give them the names of the places they come from. But the kids also give them names. I told them, “You buy a cow, you pick a name.” So five years down the road, there will be a lot of cows called Virginia.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Where do you get the ideas for your books?
FUNKE: That’s probably the most difficult question ever. My head is so full of ideas that I have to write them down all the time. I have lots of files on my shelves for all the stories I want to tell, and I’m sure I can’t do it in one lifetime. We’re surrounded by ideas. Lemasolai will give me ideas now that I’ve met him. So everyone I meet and everything I see gives me stories.
AUDIENCE: Your reading reminded me of The Sandman by Hoffman.
FUNKE: This is interesting. When I got published in England, I always thought, I’m so much in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and then the English said, “You’re completely wrong. You’re in the German tradition. You’re Hoffman and the Brothers Grimm. That’s what we find in your stories. It’s not English.” I suddenly looked at my own stories and found my own culture in there. Lemasolai is proud of his culture and he has many reasons to be. But I am German. This is something you can’t be proud of, right? All of the Germans in this room know what I’m talking about. We have a different approach to our culture and we have to learn again to be ashamed of what’s wrong with it but also to see the things that are wonderful. For example, we were big storytellers, once upon a time.