A Road Paved With Pledges and Pain
Barely more than a toddler, she was entrusted to tend her family's small herd of cattle and did it well, only occasionally earning a slap for wandering off to play in the fields. At night, she shared a pile of animal hides with her sisters in one corner of the house while their little brothers slept in the livestock pen. And now and then she heard her mother say something strange as they worked in the yard or gazed out from the kitchen fire:
"Your husband just passed by."
That "husband" was a neighbor boy, just a few years older than Ntaiya. He had visited one day when she was an infant, after a summit between both sets of parents, and placed a delicate chain around her neck. He wasn't her husband yet, she learned, but they were officially promised to one another.
Sometime during those early years, Ntaiya slowly became aware of two other things: that money in her household was scarce, and that the relationship between her parents was a troubled one.
Her father, for the most part, simply wasn't home. James Ntaiya had been among an early wave of rural Masai men to get some education and leave the cattle-herding life for employment in the cities. He stayed in Nairobi after his wife returned to Enoosaen and occasionally sent money home, but not much. There were days Ntaiya remembers no food, no milk and her little siblings crying; days they ended up foraging for vegetables or begging relatives for food.
James returned to visit on holy days, often bearing gifts and doting on his children. But he also drank. And when he drank, he demanded his dinner, and if there was no dinner, he beat his wife. Ntaiya would jump up and straddle her mother's back in a desperate attempt to stop the blows: A man would hit his wife, she knew, but he would never hit his child.
In those moments, Ntaiya began to question the future her parents and her community had laid out for her. For when the neighbor boy walked past and her mother said, "There's your husband," that was what she saw.
She saw herself being beaten.
A Mother's Example
In the early 1990s, Anna Ntaiya began planting her own corn, becoming the first woman in Enoosaen to take up agriculture.
The move was significant. For centuries, cattle had been the mainstay of the Masai economy. It was only a few years earlier that Masai men in Kenya's western highlands had started to plant crops, prodded by government officials who wanted to boost food production in the fertile hills at a time of widespread drought elsewhere. For Anna Ntaiya, the benefits of agriculture were simple. She needed the money, and vegetables grew faster than the cows -- which, after all, belonged to her husband and not to her.
Thus began a life of more stability if not much more ease for the Ntaiya family. Anna could not afford a donkey and had to make the long walk to market with the vegetables bundled on her head. She could not afford to hire farmhands, so she worked the fields on her own and with her children.
When Anna hid from her husband at her mother's house, it was Kakenya, the eldest daughter, who rose early to sweep the house and feed the younger children and milk the cows. She had little chance to play, no time to learn the beadwork the other girls were perfecting.
It was not the kind of life Ntaiya wanted for herself, nor the kind of life her mother wanted for her. Anna herself had gone to school for eight years but stopped, after her father died, to marry the man of her father's choice. She had quickly come to regret it. How different things might have been, she often thought, if she had stayed with school, learned a skill, found a way to support herself.
"Children," she often told them, "don't aspire to lead the life I'm living."
Won Over by School
Ntaiya was 7 the first time she put on a bright blue jumper and walked the mile of dirt road to Enoosaen Primary School, a cluster of long cinder-block buildings built by missionaries in the 1950s.
She didn't care for it much. Ntaiya was learning math and history and Swahili and English but remained an indifferent student, distracted by her duties at home. Fourth grade was particularly stressful because it was the first year she had to return to classes after lunch instead of staying with her mother, who she felt needed her to work the fields and mind the younger children.
Midway through that year, though, she hurt her leg on the sharp edge of a desk. The wound became infected, forcing her to miss months of class, and at the end of the session, her teachers held her back. Ntaiya could hardly stomach the humiliation. She vowed never to be left behind again.
During that second trip through the fourth grade, she found more reason to strive, gripped by the twin thrills of competition and success. Speeding through material she had mastered the year before, she suddenly found herself the smartest girl in the class. She started spending more time with the boys, who she found wasted far too much time talking about girls. But unlike the girls she knew, they also talked about things like ideas, and problem-solving, and ambitions.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Kakenya Ntaiya's sister Seenoi and mother, Anna, sit in the oil-lit living room of their home in Enoosaen, Kenya. A picture of Kakenya's father hangs on the wall.
(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.