Growing up, Wilson and Jackson had to fight to go to school.
Born into the Maasai tribe in rural Kenya, their parents wanted them to be warriors, not students wasting their time buried in books. Now in their mid-to-late 20s, Wilson and Jackson have achieved what was once unthinkable: They both have degrees. They both grew up to be Maasai warriors. And now, they're both authors.
Their journey from young boys who were at risk for illiteracy to motivational speakers for Me to We, the social enterprise arm of Canadian-based charity Free the Children, is illustrated in their new book, The Last Maasai Warriors.
"School gave me courage to set a goal for my future," says Wilson.
Currently in the country for a few months to speak at We Day events across the country, Wilson and Jackson's first order of business upon landing was getting appropriate footwear and warmer clothes.
One of Kenya's better-known ethnic groups, thanks to their distinctive dress and intricate jewelry, the Maasai have a reputation for being fearless. In Kenya, the pair work for Me to We as guides on youth and corporate trips in the country's Maasai Mara district. They act as liaisons between the travellers and the communities they visit, and also provide security against wild animals when the groups go on safari.
SEE: Wilson and Jackson leading AOL Canada's group through Maasai Mara district in June 2012. Story continues below:
Wilson, whose Maasai name Meikuaya means nature, and Jackson, whose Maasai name Ntirkana means born of the night, are part of a Maasai generation that's bridging the gap between old and new. Wilson keeps a cellphone in his shuka so that he can look up the latest football scores, and while they're both experts at identifying plants that are safe to eat in the rural savannah, travellers who want to keep in touch after the trip can befriend Wilson on Facebook.
"You watch National Geographic and you hear these things in stories but this is so surreal to actually witness firsthand," says Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, of both the culture and the enormous changes to which they're easily adapting. He adds Wilson is considered an elder in his home community, despite his age, due to his education and world travels.
One of the long-standing rituals of the Maasai culture was the killing of a lion as the final rite of passage to becoming a warrior. The Kenyan government outlawed the killing of lions in the late 1970s, but the tradition continued for some time among the Maasai. Wilson and Jackson were among the last to carry out the task.
As the lion charged, Wilson recalls, he didn't have time to second guess if he was ready, because it was kill or be killed. "I thought this could be the beginning of your life, or this could be the end of your life," he says.
Just as the lion was about to strike, Wilson dealt the first blow to its head with a conga, a wooden weapon that looks like a club. He followed it up by piercing his metal spear into the right side of the lion's neck.
Standing over the lion's carcass, there was only one task left for Wilson to complete. He skinned the big cat of its mane and travelled home to his rural community in southwest Kenya.
Jackson says he’ll never forget his homecoming after killing a lion. Community members sprinkled him with milk as he walked by and offered him cows. Women showered him with beautiful beaded necklaces and bracelets he still wears today. “It's a grand thing,” he says. “So many people are proud of you. It’s like you’re a celebrity in the community.”
The pair still have their lion manes and are fiercely proud of their acts of bravery, but they embrace the change that promises a Maasai boy warrior status if he gets a post-secondary education.
"It's an honour to be a Maasai warrior and get an education," says Wilson, adding he would've missed out on school if he hadn't defied his parents' wishes as a child, and purposefully kept in view when government officials entered his community looking for kids who weren't in school. Both he and Jackson's parents are now very proud of their sons, and all their accomplishments.
In Kenya, Wilson and Jackson reach a demographic in the groups that Free the Children has had a difficult time engaging, says Kielburger. “When a 13-year-old boy comes to Kenya, you give them to Wilson and Jackson and that boy literally becomes putty in their hands," he says. “All of the sudden these boys have photos of Wilson and Jackson above their beds because they think, 'Wow, that's the epitome of manhood and leadership'."
As educated men leading their tribe into the 21st century while retaining respect for their past, it's easy to see why it's an example others would want to follow. Wilson and Jackson's book can be purchased on Free the Children's website.