Her Extraordinary Education
In the fabled Masai tribe into which she was born, the girls who started school tended to drop out by the middle grades, many to get married. School district officials can remember only a handful of Masai girls from her region who graduated before Ntaiya, and no others who pursued a college degree.
She attended a grammar school where most of the teachers did not hold a university diploma. With paper hard to come by, she and her classmates wrote in chalk on the concrete floor. She never possessed a textbook until high school. She never read an entire book until she was 20 years old.
There were no SAT prep courses in Enoosaen to pave Ntaiya's path to a four-year scholarship at an Americancollege, worth roughly 80 times her mother's annual income. There were, after all, no SATs.
That a child who helped feed her family by pulling weeds for less than a dollar a day in a village 20 miles from a paved road could even have a vision of higher education -- would know someone who would know a college president on the far side of the globe and could write a letter saying, let me tell you about this girl -- reflects the evolution of the least developed corners of the world.
The first young representatives of tribal Africa emerged from rural villages in search of university educations in the 1960s and '70s, some heading to the capital cities, others overseas. The cattle-herding Masai came late to this trek: Their stoic and semi-nomadic ways beguiled a century of Western visitors -- from "Out of Africa" author Isak Dinesen to today's Hollywood filmmakers -- but confounded colonial attempts to impose institutions on them. It was not until the 1980s that Ntaiya's community began growing crops to supplement the cattle that once constituted its entire livelihood and slowly gained a modest economic stability that opened the doors to schooling.
For the young rural Africans who pursue the promise of higher education, it may be a lonely journey, but it is rarely a solo effort. Many arrive on campus only because their villages raised money to finance their travel or tuition -- with a hope, spoken or implicit, that these students would one day return the favor.
"You feel, definitely, a debt," said Sylvain H. Boko, an associate professor of economics at Wake Forest University who has studied the impact of globalization on African communities -- and who himself was one of the first children from his village in Benin to go to college. Such emigrants "are very conscious that we left behind a lot of people who do not have the chance to achieve what we have. That haunts you."
Many leave intent on returning someday, a desire stoked by equal parts duty and nostalgia. But college has a way of altering their dreams. The major in agriculture or medicine is dumped for policy studies or literature. The village sweetheart is replaced by one from a distant city or another culture. Newfound comforts, such as e-mail or sushi, evolve into essentials. After four or six or 10 years of schooling, many find that their newly complicated lives no longer fit into the places they left behind. They still feel the debt. But they try to fulfill it by sending money and visiting regularly, while making new homes in the cities where they can enjoy the lives for which their expensive degrees prepared them.
In Enoosaen, a cluster of grass-thatched huts and rocky fields eight hours west of Nairobi and invisible on most maps, these are the potential careers: farmer, teacher or merchant selling flea spray and cotton cloth from sheet-metal shacks.
And this is the social life: The men, most married by their early twenties, talking crops and cattle under the awnings of the village center. The women, most wed by their late teens, beading bracelets around a kitchen fire. None of the four or five young men who departed Enoosaen for college has returned to live full time.
For Ntaiya, whose journey triggered a cathartic debate in Enoosaen, the stakes are higher. She vows to return, though so have all the others. Yet the expectations for her will be greater, speculated Njeri Mbugua, a sociologist at Illinois Wesleyan University -- because she is the first woman.
"She embodies in her not just her individual success, but the success of her community," said Mbugua, a native of Kenya. "They said, 'We send you out with our blessings.' Now, her community is expecting her."
Immersed in a New Culture
There were days growing up, with her mother sick and father absent, that Ntaiya remembers going without food. Here, her tastes have grown agonizingly precise.
"Veggie burger," she tells the waiter at Applebee's in Lynchburg, each vowel rolling out roundly. "No lettuce, no pickle . . ." She pauses, tilts her head coquettishly and considers the menu again. Her friends Katherine and Adwoa watch with interest.
© 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.