Kakenya's Promise : A Delicate Negotiation
A Road Paved With Pledges and Pain
Student Built Alliances in Village to Reach an American College
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2003; Page A01
Second of four articles
On a bright, hot day five years ago, Kakenya Ntaiya set off from her family's small mud-walled house to visit the most powerful man in her village.
Ntaiya needed his help. A year earlier she graduated from high school, a first among the girls she had grown up with. And now she nurtured a goal so radical that many neighbors who heard her talk about it were certain she was fantasizing.
She wanted to go to college. In the United States.
But she needed money. Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., offered her a scholarship covering almost everything except $3,000 a year -- an amount more than three times her family's annual income. And she needed a plane ticket. Instead of support, however, she was finding outright resistance from her village. Enoosaen had never sent a girl to college, or anywhere alone, really, beyond these hills of corn and cattle. Ntaiya's plan seemed a dangerous and impudent folly.
"She's going to get lost," she heard the villagers whisper.
Ntaiya would need many allies in her long struggle for an education. She found them in disparate places, from the teachers in her village school, from a college president in Virginia, from a savvy country-boy-made-good with a network of contacts spanning Nairobi bureaucracy and American academia. But at that point, no one mattered as much as an illiterate farmer and father of 10 who lived just on the other side of the hill from her home.
A compact man with calculating eyes, On'goni Ole-Nan'gea had never spent a day in a classroom. But he cultivated one of the bigger fields of sugar cane in the region and was widely acknowledged as Enoosaen's reigning power broker -- the man who made things happen. So Ntaiya put on a clean skirt and her most respectful face and climbed the dusty path to his house.
"I can't do it without you," she told him.
Ntaiya grew up with no electricity or running water, in a household so impoverished she went without food many days. Her tribesmen, the legendary red-cloaked Masai, had spent centuries as nomads and still fit uneasily with the institutions thrust upon them by colonialism. Schooling was valued little in her community, least of all for women, whose worth was measured largely by the number of cattle they could draw as dowry.
Years later, Ntaiya reflected upon the forces that motivated her. In a series of interviews in Randolph-Macon's dorm rooms and dining hall, she traced the roots of her frustration with the male-dominated culture of the Masai. And she explained how she hopes to return home as a leader who can show the men that a woman can succeed and who can teach the next generation of girls to delay marriage and pursue careers.
They are rebellious ideals, in keeping with the life plan of a young woman who shrugged off social convention to achieve her goals. "I think I was born a feminist," she said, laughing one day on the shaded lawn of Main Hall.
Yet Ntaiya was no rebel. She was a dutiful child who worked the neighbors' fields alongside her mother to help feed the family, who taught Sunday school at the Pentecostal church and earned points with community elders for being quiet and respectful. And she was so devoted to her village that long before she left, she was determined to return and make a life there. She wanted to change Enoosaen -- but she also wanted dearly to remain a part of it.
So for her, breaking free of her culture's strictures could not entail lashing out or fleeing, but rather a process of striking certain bargains. It would mean tolerating some of her community's most oppressive traditions. And it would mean coming to rely on some of its best.
An Infant Betrothed
She was born in 1978 in a Nairobi hospital, the only one of James and Anna Ntaiya's eight children not delivered at home. Her mother later remembered the month but not the day, so when government paperwork entered her life 20 years later, Ntaiya got to pick one for herself: June 5.
Her stay in the city was brief. Anna had followed her husband there when he took a job as a police officer but found that she hated the city -- not enough cows -- and after a year returned to Enoosaen with her 2-week-old baby to build a house on her own.
So Kakenya Ntaiya's first memories were of the country life, of two small rooms under a roof of grass and the shadow of a steep green hill, of the cows in the yard and the bugs on the cows and the goats nosing their way into the dirt-floor parlor.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company