‘A Man Of Two Worlds’ Kenyan Goes From Nomad To Scholar; Now He’s New Student President At Whitworth
Moses Pulei was born in a mud and stick hut in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, a member of Kenya’s nomadic Masai tribe.
He once speared a leopard while tending his family’s sheep, and for years kept its claws. As a boy, he raided ostrich nests, grabbing the eggs and running from the angry birds for fun.
“We didn’t have Toys “R” Us in Kenya,” he said about his childhood.
Now a junior in religious studies at Whitworth College, Pulei’s journey from nomad to scholar is a lesson in the power of learning.
Last month, he was elected student body president for the coming school year. A popular figure on campus, Pulei twice was named homecoming king.
His goal is to finish at Whitworth and enroll in divinity school so he can return to Kenya to train Christian ministers.
“I consider myself a man of two worlds,” said Pulei (pronounced “pooh lay”).
Those worlds couldn’t be farther apart.
The Masai keep no birth records so Pulei doesn’t know how old he is. He could be 24, maybe 26.
Pulei speaks five African languages as well as English. He holds a 3.7 grade average and co-teaches a class in African studies. This summer, he is leading a Whitworth study tour back to Kenya.
“Moses is somebody who can straddle both worlds,” said political science Professor John Yoder, who co-teaches with Pulei.
“I think it is a rare individual who is bicultural.”
His ability to move easily from a mostly white campus to the plains of East Africa shows a knack for understanding people regardless of their roots, said Yoder.
That skill will serve him well when, and if, he returns to Kenya and goes to work in a country that has its own divisions, the professor said.
“He’s able to see different sides of an issue,” Yoder said.
If Pulei’s grandfather had had his way, Pulei would never have gone to college, much less to school in the United States.
His grandfather was a religious leader in one of the five Masai clans, and rejected any thought of letting his grandson leave the village to learn modern ways.
“The white man’s magic, that’s what my grandfather called it,” Pulei said. “It was a big argument for me to go to school.”
The Masai make their homes over a wide area of southwest Kenya and northern Tanzania, moving their villages periodically to find abundant grass for their livestock.
While the Masai have a reputation historically as strong warriors, they live in harmony with nature. They rarely kill wild animals because they have plenty of their own, Pulei said.
“The number of cattle you have is the worth and dignity of who you are,” Pulei said. “The Masai live at peace with the animals, except when the animals attack their livestock.”
So insistent was his grandfather on keeping Pulei out of school that he sent his grandson on a 300-mile trek on foot to live with relatives in Tanzania to avoid a government effort to educate the nomadic children.
Kenya, like other African nations, was undergoing Western-style modernization when Pulei was growing up.
Tanzania was forcing the Masai to send their children to school, too, so Pulei ended up in a Lutheran-run classroom.
Eventually, he returned to Kenya and boarded in town, visiting his family on school breaks.
His education was sponsored by the World Vision organization, through which someone in the United States paid $20 a month to finance his high school years, he said.
At school, he was befriended by Christian missionaries, and converted shortly after his grandfather died. He heard about Whitworth through missionaries.
Through their encouragement, he applied and won a partial scholarship from the Presbyterian college in north Spokane. The rest of his education is paid for with donations from church sources, he said.
Even now, when he returns for visits, Pulei uses his knowledge of the Masai wanderings to find his family.
Pulei is one of 100 students from foreign countries at Whitworth out of a student body of about 2,000, said Christa Richardson, director of international student affairs.
Whitworth maintains exchange programs with colleges overseas, and is connected with a network of missionary activities.
Students are required to fulfill what’s called a multicultural experience, which could include a study tour abroad.
In his three years on campus, Pulei said he never once was confronted with racism.
“The environment here for international students is very good,” he said. “Being black here has not been an issue.”
Pulei won the student body presidency after filing as a write-in candidate in the primary election, and then getting 65 percent of the vote in the final runoff.
He said his chief goal as president will be to make student government more accessible to students.
Senior religion major Heidi Huntley of Irvine, Calif., said Pulei is one of those people who is hungry to learn. He reads as soon as he gets up in the morning, yet loves to share his own experiences.
He speaks at Spokane area schools often, and is proud of his heritage, she said.
“I grew up riding around a cul-de-sac on a Big Wheel,” Huntley said.
“It’s amazing to me to listen to his stories and realize we came from such different worlds.”
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