Kakenya's Promise: A Girl Will Never Forget
Her Extraordinary Education
Kenyan Defied Tribe's Traditions but Now Carries Its Hopes
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page A01
First of four articles
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Kakenya Ntaiya awakens to the silence of a dormitory morning.
She always awoke early back home in the western highlands of Kenya, where dawn brought the cows tramping near her window and the chickens scratching their way into the parlor and a baby sister squirming in her bed as the sun warmed the smooth mud walls around them. They were reminders of so many chores to do.
Here in this airtight dorm room the size of her mother's entire house, no chores announce themselves. Breakfast will come from cows that someone else milked and chickens she's never seen. Yet even after three years and three months at an American college, she rises early, with an awareness of all she has to accomplish.
But first Ntaiya sits on her bed and thanks the God who delivered her here, as she says she always does. The God who will help her fulfill her duties. And she prays for the family that misses her so and for the village elders who sent her away on the understanding that she would greet each morning thinking of them.
A girl will never forget her home, they said. It was the way they consoled themselves, really. No daughter of Enoosaen had ever gone to college -- or practically anywhere alone, beyond those fields of corn and sugar cane and more cattle than people. Yet she had fixated on the United States, territory uncharted on the maps in their minds. A girl could get lost out there. She could be robbed, or prostituted, or worse. But the eldest of James and Anna Ntaiya's eight children had worn them down with clever arguments and won them over with big promises. The boys who had gone had stayed gone, as boys are wont to do. A girl, however, would remember. A girl would return.
For now, it's April of 2003, and the spring semester is hurtling toward exams. She lopes down the stairs, out the door, across the lawn to her 9:25 class -- Economics of the Developing World. Several international students fill the seats around her, so this time it can be a South American called upon to offer a story from "back home," while Masai tribeswoman Ntaiya, exotic pride of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, slouches in the back taking notes. "Sustainability," she writes. "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations."
Just one more year to graduation, to the diploma her neighbors back home once mocked as a fantasy.
They could never have imagined, of course, how safe she would be in the embrace of a small campus, all red brick and magnolia and cheery hellos, nor how well she would blend in by now. How she would swan through the dining hall today with a brazen, face-splitting smile, teasing one tablemate about a boyfriend, another about a peculiarly American taste for uncooked vegetables. How she could plop down in a professor's office -- uninvited! -- to banter about her star performance on the Model United Nations trip. Or how at her 12:15 International Law class, the child who grew up without electricity or running water would play technology guru, gently heckling a classmate who couldn't get a PowerPoint presentation to work.
"Hit 'End Task'!" Ntaiya hisses as the computer burbles unpromisingly. "You have to take the disk out."
Nor could the people of her village, who plotted their days by the sun, have imagined the pressures the United States would heave on top of those she had carried to its shores -- the accumulation of ceaseless demands. The presentation on Croatian culture, not yet started but due in two days. The paper for British history. The econ quiz. Final exams. Then the summer, and what exactly? Nowhere to go, no money to fly home. And now the administrator she hoped to cajole about that campus job is telling her, kindly but firmly, that she'd better not count on it.
As her friends chatter around her in the computer lab, she stews silently before escaping into the cool spring night. But as soon as the tears rise up, a wave of shame beats them back. She endured so much to make it here, paid a price no American college woman could comprehend. If these little things at college overwhelmed her, how will she ever handle the real work ahead? So many debts to pay back home -- a family to support, a school to build, a water system to improve. So many minds to change, so many children to inspire.
That was the deal, wasn't it? A girl will never forget her home, her community decreed. It wasn't just a prophecy, or mere solace. It was its plan for her, and she alone would have to make it true.
A Lonely Path
By the time Ntaiya entered her village school's equivalent of eighth grade, only one other girl was in her class.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Kakenya Ntaiya, left, gets a boost from friends. Amid pressures of achieving in school and understanding a new culture, a friend's shoulder comes in handy.
(Photos Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
About This Series|
These articles are based on interviews with and observations of Kakenya Ntaiya (pronounced kah-KEHN-yah n-ta-YAH) that began in spring 2001, the year after she arrived in Lynchburg, Va., to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College. In August, staff writer Amy Argetsinger and staff photographer Jahi Chikwendiu spent a week with Ntaiya's family, neighbors and teachers in Enoosaen (pronounced eh-noh-sah-YEHN), Kenya. Swahili and Maa translators assisted with some interviews there. Other sources were Ntaiya's classmates, professors and college officials in Virginia.