Clemson student James Nampushi had to kill a lion in his home country of Kenya to earn the honored status of Maasai Warrior. He holds the spear he used to kill the lion as well a giraffe's tail.

Clemson student James Nampushi had to kill a lion in his home country of Kenya to earn the honored status of Maasai Warrior. He holds the spear he used to kill the lion as well a giraffe’s tail.

By Ross Norton
Media Relations

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.

James in a traditional Maasai shuka.

James in a traditional Maasai shuka.

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.”

He said it took a year to get comfortable in shoes. James still is not accustomed to a mattress, and he credits the cow skin he slept on as a child for the strength of his back. On holidays, he returned to his village, where he helped the other young people herd goats and cows.

With a lifetime of training behind him, he became a running champion at school, though eventually he gave up athletics to concentrate on academics. He came to believe that the survival of his culture would depend upon better education for his people.

When he graduated from the school, there was still the matter of becoming a warrior. It was his and his cohort’s need to prove their worthiness that put them on the path to battle the lion.

Fortunately for James, gravely wounded and helpless under the claws and teeth of an injured and angry lion, his friends were up to the task. They could have run away, but instead they attacked the lion as soon as James’ limp body was on the ground. They killed the lion and used their clothing to bandage James. They carried him to a cave and began treating him with plant medicine gathered in the bush. Only then did one of them run back to the village to relay the news.

For six months, he was nursed in the cave with bone marrow soup and plant medicine, until he was fit to walk back to the village. He returned — with the lion’s mane and tail dressing his spear — to a jubilant village.

Five-thousand warriors and thousands more Maasai crowded into James’ small village for the celebration. They composed songs and told stories to honor him. He became a celebrated warrior not just in his village, but in all of Maasailand. He became a junior elder and member of the Council of Elders. The leaders told him he could marry any woman of his choosing.

James had other plans. Though he would marry later, at his moment of triumph James chose instead to enroll in Moi University where he studied tourism. His education was supported by his village and an ecotourism group called Base Camp Foundation, for whom he worked during school and after graduation.

It was at Base Camp’s Maasai Mara ecolodge that he met an American tourist from Fountain Inn, Jimbo Burry, who became fascinated with the articulate young man so determined to pursue an education in order to help improve the lives of his people.

“He told me he wanted to get a master’s degree,” Burry said. “Now, keep in mind, he was sitting there with a spear in his hand. I said, ‘Well James, you have to have a four-year degree first.’” Burry was amazed to learn that James had just earned a degree, and the conversation set the two men on a path that would lead James to Clemson University, sponsored by the man he now affectionately calls Dad.

A boy from the village

James’ first taste of Clemson was the First Friday Parade, in which he carried the Kenyan flag.

“That really fascinated me. I have never seen in my life the solidarity and the unity of the University and the neighbors. I saw little kids lining up on the side of the road. … I saw the elders, the senior citizens, standing up to show solidarity and unity and togetherness with Clemson and the entire student community who turned up to march with me and the band and the Tigers. … That made me feel more attached and I developed a deeper belonging to Clemson University as a community and I said, ‘God, now I’m here. You brought me from the bush and now I am here and this is a top-class university and they accepted me.’ So I had to do something for the university,” James said.

Now that he’s a graduate student, James has two objectives: to make the most of his education and to show the University and community how much he appreciates the opportunity. When he returns to Kenya, he wants to help manage the rich natural resources that are the mainstay of Maasai culture — the Maasai Mara and the Mau Forest. In Clemson, meanwhile, he visits local groups, from schoolchildren to nursing homes, to share his story and culture. He carries with him the very spear he used to defeat the lion.

“In my heart, Clemson University has done so much for me. They got me from the village to where I am now,” James said. “Me, a boy from the village at a top-class university! I must work hard. I must work hard. This is a miracle to me. To be here, is God. I must work hard because I know where I came from and where I am now. So I have to do something for Clemson.”

See related news article: Clemson University enters into partnership with Kenyan university in Maasai territory.

Know a determined Clemson spirit who you’d like to see us write about? Contact University writer Crystal Boyles at