A Road Paved With Pledges and Pain
Soon these new friendships became essential. One by one, her female friends were dropping out, most in the seventh grade. By eighth grade, only one other girl remained. For it was the time of life when a good Masai girl needed to start thinking about things bigger than school and books, to stop living the life of a child in the home of her parents.
Time to grow up .
Time to get married.
Or for Ntaiya, time to start cutting some deals.
Fearing the Fire
She began by stalling.
It was the year she turned 15. Her father was home on one of his infrequent visits when he first laid down the order: It's time for you to be circumcised.
"Let me finish Class 8," she said. Months later, she simply rephrased it. "Let's wait and see how I do on national exams first."
Emuratisho. That was the Masai word for the ritual -- the cutting or trimming of the genitals in a ceremony to launch young girls into womanhood -- that had been practiced for centuries in varying forms by a variety of sub-Saharan cultures. Already, health care workers were mounting a vigorous campaign against the practice, which they dubbed "female genital mutilation." Within a few years, the Kenyan government and other African nations would ban it because of the tremendous health risks -- from infection to infertility to death -- not to mention the crippling pain.
But Ntaiya, who had never met a woman who had not endured that pain, harbored another fear: Circumcision would, by tradition, remove the last barrier to marriage.
And marriage would mean an end to her education.
She was in her final year of grammar school, her goals just starting to find shape. She knew she needed a way to support her mother. She was beguiled by the crisp white uniforms and brisk English chatter of Sosio Secondary School, 20 miles away in Kilgoris. And she was forming a hazy image of a future that could include college.
On her lunch break one day, she happened to spot a former neighbor, Morompi Ole-Ronkei, the first Enoosaen native to get a university degree. He was impossible to miss: jeans, sneakers, eyeglasses, a camera and a confident stride.
That's what I want to be, she thought.
Her father shared some pride in his eldest child's achievements. When she performed brilliantly on the national exams that determined entry into high school in late 1993, he bragged to everyone. He declared that his daughter should continue her studies in Nairobi, and he took copies of her test scores when he returned to the city, promising to call for her when he found a school.
But as January turned into February, and the first weeks of the Kenyan school year ticked away, Ntaiya still had not heard from her father. Again, it was her mother who stepped in. With help from one of Ntaiya's uncles, Anna enrolled her eldest in Sosio Secondary.
A few months later, Ntaiya's father returned for Easter and declared again that it was time for his daughter's circumcision. This time, her mother told her, "you can't get out of it."
She had run out of leverage, and she knew it. But for her, the fight had never really been about circumcision. So she retreated, to mount a defense of her larger goal.
"I will do this," she told them, "if you let me finish high school."
© 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.