Her Extraordinary Education
"No lettuce, and mayonnaise," she proclaims finally, the last word tripping out in three regal syllables.
The waiter labors to keep up, flustered by the accent or the attitude. "Veggie burger, no lettuce, no mayonnaise?" he asks.
Ntaiya glances back. "Mayonnaise should be there."
America came at her freshman year in a rush of new stimuli -- television, fashion, snow, vacuum cleaners, plumbing, Wal-Mart, silverware -- and a barrage of attention. Everyone wanted to talk to her, to take her to her first movie or on her first boat ride. She was the star of Randolph-Macon's fundraising banquet, hamming it up in her red Masai wrap and beaded headdress in a skit with "Good Morning America" host Charles Gibson, husband of an alumna. The applause came like thunder.
After three years, the novelty of this country has long since worn off, as has the novelty of her presence here. She is 24 now, a junior. But life has not calmed down.
She's reading -- and reading, and reading, sunk in those funky old orange armchairs that survived the colonial redo of the Main Hall lobby. A couple of books a week: economics texts, Shakespearean plays. English was her third language, after her tribe's Maa and her region's Swahili, and it's still a chore, absorbing all that print to regurgitate into papers and class discussions. Sometimes it takes a second read before it all sinks in.
Or she's traveling. To the Model United Nations or mock African Union conferences in New York or Washington that have became the great outlet for her grand new intellectual passion of international relations, mixing it up with the aggressively brainy students from other colleges, finding fodder for weeks of rehash and gossip.
Or she's working. A couple of days a week at the campus nursery school, where the faculty children cling to her like kittens, and a few nights a week at the computer study hall, where she hushes her giggling classmates from behind an old wooden desk -- jobs less taxing than time-consuming but essential to fulfill her scholarship's work-study requirement and to earn pocket money in the absence of a check from home.
Or she's running -- three miles or more down the trail by a quiet stream, a sport she had never tried (the hours in her mother's fields leaving no time or need for exercise) until she came here and craved a way to empty her lungs and clear her brain.
Or she's talking on the phone with the best new discovery of this past year -- David, a fellow Kenyan. They've met in person exactly twice since he introduced himself in a London airport more than a year ago, but he calls every night from Toronto. He has a gentle, unassuming manner completely unlike that of any other Kenyan man she knows, and he speaks in a sweet, husky voice that calms her every time she gets stressed out.
Or she's just plain having fun, which should be her occasional right, after all, as an American college student.
"Play Faith Hill!" she pleads as they pile into Katherine's silver hatchback after dinner, and Katherine dutifully cranks it up, the first song Ntaiya ever loved in this country, a joyous tune with a lithe beat and such outrageously happy lyrics -- the only ones simple and clear enough for her to pick out on the radio that baffling freshman year. She croons along with it now in a soft, dreamy voice, all the way back to the dorm.
"It's the way you love me. It's a feeling like this . . . This kiss, this kiss!"
Longing for Home
It's only when the whirl subsides -- when classes are over for the night or for the semester, when the last papers are turned in, when the chattering of friends no longer fills her room or the clamor of the hallways is silenced for a long weekend or holiday -- that it all comes back to her.
© 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.