10/10/2012 03:34 EDT | Updated 12/10/2012 05:12 EST

The Last Maasai Warriors

Michelle Edwards-Boldt

It is a test of manhood from another time and place, with a modern twist: For 15-year-old Jackson Ntirkana to earn a chance to go to high school, he had to become a warrior first -- by killing a lion.

Although born into a traditional nomadic Maasai family that tended livestock on the savannah, Ntirkana dreamed of going to school and becoming a politician, building bridges between his people and the rest of Kenya.

But his parents believed children should tend cows instead of books. Ntirkana only got to go to primary school after he was removed from his home by government officials and placed in the care of his uncle.

Between terms, he returned home to undertake training to become a warrior, his parents' greatest hope for their boy. He lived in a cave in the wilderness with other boys, eating meat and drinking blood, learning how to hunt and perform the duties of a warrior.

As Ntirkana approached the end of primary school, and the age of manhood, his parents had come to see the value of education, and how much it meant to their son. However high school was expensive. His parents offered him a deal: if he completed the ritual to become a warrior by killing a lion, they would sell some of their precious cows to pay for tuition.

When we met Ntirkana several years ago while building a school in his community, he told us the story of how his chance to hunt a lion hung on a hand shake.

Standing in the cave where he had trained for years, Ntirkana was approached by a Maasai elder who reached out to take his hand. The old warrior would judge Ntirkana's readiness by the strength of his grip. He was the smallest boy in his group, would he be strong enough? He grasped the elder's hand as hard as he could.

The old warrior gazed intently at Ntirkana, then broke into a smile. "You are ready!" Now the most dangerous part of the trial lay before him -- finding and killing the fierce predator of the savannah.

Ntikana set out across the plains with 11 other young would-be warriors. The hunters trekked 50 arduous kilometres before spotting their quarry: a lion with three lionesses, slipping into the forest. Using bells, the hunters flushed the male lion into the open and surrounded it. Ntirkana let fly his spear, followed by the others. The lion fell.

He could claim the lion's mane and the title warrior. Now his parents would let him go to high school. Nearly a decade later, Ntirkana and his friend, Wilson Meikuaya, who also killed a lion to earn the opportunity to go to high school, are touring Canada promoting their joint autobiography, The Last Maasai Warriors. They will tell their story to more than 100,000 young Canadians at We Days across the country.

The pair presents an incongruous picture, attending book launch parties in modern Canadian homes attired in full Maasai warrior garb -- a bright red plaid shuka wrapped around their shoulders like a cape, and heavy, ornate beaded necklaces. They are at once an anachronism and a vision of the future -- the last generation to undergo the age-old Maasai rituals of adulthood, and the first to be educated. They show the next generation of Maasai -- and Canadians -- that it is possible to balance tradition with positive change.

In Kenya we saw them complete high school and receive scholarships to go to college. They have returned to their communities as role models and warriors, upholding traditional Maasai values like the importance of family, respect for elders, and a deep connection to the land.

As the last generation of true Maasai warriors, their book is an effort to keep their culture and history from being lost.

Ntirkana and Meikuaya lead the Maasai to embrace positive western values like environmentalism and universal education. They have stopped the killing of lions and have campaigned against female genital mutilation. Polygamy is traditional among the Maasai, and both men come from families where their fathers took multiple wives. However Ntirkana and Meikuaya say they will each only take one wife, who has not been circumcised.

They still go to the caves to help train the next generation, but they tell boys and girls that instead of killing a lion, education is the way to become a warrior.

"I tell them, kill this lion that you have in school," says Meikuaya. "You can protect your community by being teachers or doctors."

Our Hollywood-inspired culture glamorizes strong, brave warriors who swoop in with rippling muscles to save the day. For us the story of Ntirkana and Meikuaya fighting to balance tradition and change, beats any Arnold Schwarzenegger flick hands down.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit