A Road Paved With Pledges and Pain
So one early morning in April 1994, Ntaiya entered the cow pen behind her house in the company of her 13-year-old sister, Nasieku, another young village woman and a grandmother with a knife. The girls had spent the previous week traveling through the village, blowing whistles and ringing bells to announce their upcoming initiation into adulthood, and the previous night singing and dancing in the Ntaiya home with all the neighbor women. And then, with what seemed like the entire village crowding in to watch, Ntaiya lifted her skirt and spread her legs and the grandmother grabbed her most intimate pieces of flesh and with a fast, deep, scooping slash tore them out.
What on earth must it have felt like?
"It's ridiculous," Ntaiya says, with a distant, nervous laugh. "Like torture."
It's a warm fall afternoon more than a decade later, and she is sitting in an old wooden booth in a tavern just off the Randolph-Macon campus. It wasn't until she came to the United States, Ntaiya says, that she really began to think about what she had gone through. But in her freshman year, she wrote a term paper about the ritual, and in doing research, came to see it as an act of oppression against women.
She shakes her head now and gives another hollow laugh. "It must be stopped," she says. "Those people should be put in jail!"
But how did it feel -- for her? When it happened to her.
She fidgets with her plate of french fries. "It's like burning," she begins. "It's like fire." And then she giggles. "Hmm. . . . I don't want to go there."
After the cutting, a woman helped her walk back to the house, where she later fainted from blood loss. She and the other two girls sat there in pain for a day until the women returned to wash their wounds, and then the ceremony was over. As soon as the others left, her mother slipped them some painkillers, but still Ntaiya's wounds burned as she watched her skin scab up and fleck away. She ached for two weeks.
And then she went back to school.
Making a Connection
Ntaiya thrived at Sosio Secondary, a cluster of agricultural-looking buildings up a rutted dirt road from the Kilgoris village center. Unlike her previous school, this one had electricity and running water and classmates from several other tribes. She excelled in math and joined the Christian Union, and her teachers watched her blossom from a shy first-year student to a forthright upperclassman who generally was granted the last word by her peers.
Meanwhile, her parents had kept up their end of the bargain, relieved that she had ultimately shown them respect by undergoing circumcision. When the neighbor boy and other young men started coming around after the ceremony seeking her hand, her father shooed them away. "Let her finish her education -- then you can take her," he said.
But there was one man Ntaiya sought out, for a very different reason: Morompi Ole-Ronkei, the neighbor who had gone to college.
A trim, garrulous man, Ole-Ronkei had left Enoosaen at age 12 when he won a scholarship to a school for needy boys in Nairobi. He had spent years in the United States, receiving a doctorate in communications at the University of Oregon before returning to Nairobi as a coordinator for an international Christian relief group. Yet he and his wife, Renoi, also an Enoosaen native, maintained close ties with the village. In recent years, he had helped a few young Masai men get into overseas colleges -- including one to Stanford University.
As Ntaiya entered high school, Ole-Ronkei promised he would do the same for her one day, though at the time neither envisioned anything grander than one of Kenya's one- or two-year teacher academies -- far less than a college degree if still plenty ambitious for a Masai country girl.
But when she caught up with him four years later, he found himself newly impressed by this young woman. Her grades were superb, and her teachers said she would pass the national exams with ease. More significant, she was still unwed. Virtually every Masai girl he had seen graduate from high school had been married within the month.
Ole-Ronkei looked up an old colleague named Kathleen Bowman -- a former University of Oregon vice provost who had recently taken the presidency of a small all-women's college in Virginia. He penned a charming, breezy note congratulating her on the move and filling her in on his latest side project, a Masai cultural center at their old campus. When she responded, he followed up with another letter: There's a girl here you might be interested in. . . .
Then he put Ntaiya to work. He assigned her to read a series of texts, which she didn't particularly enjoy, and made her write essays about them in an effort to improve her English. When the application for Randolph-Macon Woman's College arrived, he typed her handwritten essay describing her fervent desire to become a banker. And when the acceptance letter arrived, he brought her to Nairobi and lent her the money to apply for a visa.
But he couldn't do everything. When it came to convincing the village, Morompi Ole-Ronkei could be of no help. The whispers were loud and vehement: Girls can't be educated. She will end up prostituted or hurt. She will marry someone who is not Masai. She'll get lost.
© 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.