A Road Paved With Pledges and Pain
Ntaiya would have to make her own case.
A Child of the Village
She began by promising.
It was best to start with the women. They were her mother's friends, an informal collective of about 20 women who helped each other build their houses, and they gathered now in her mother's parlor.
She reminded them that they had seen her grow up, had watched her as a little girl handling the work of a grown man -- yoking the oxen, spraying the cows with pesticide. She reminded them that she was not just her mother's child but the child of each and every one of them -- a child of the village -- and that they could ask her for anything they wanted.
What did they want?
They wanted help starting their own businesses. They wanted their daughters to go to school. They wanted a maternity clinic.
Ntaiya pledged to help make it happen.
"I'll never forget you all," she said. "I'll come back."
She had the support of the women, but she needed more. She needed the men. So she did what scores of the region's politicians had done when they needed to round up votes in Enoosaen: She went to On'goni Ole-Nan'gea.
Though they operated in different worlds, Ole-Nan'gea possessed networking skills to rival those of Ole-Ronkei. No surprise: They were brothers. The only difference was that Ole-Ronkei, the troublesome child, had been sent to school, while Ole-Nan'gea, the useful one, had been kept at home.
The country brother was also more deliberative in dealing with Ntaiya than his city kin. During her first several trips to talk to him, he gave her no response. Finally, though, she sensed him thaw.
"So," she said. "What do you want us to do?"
He started spreading the word slowly among the men of Enoosaen: This child is determined, and she is intelligent. "It's good to plant something on a child," he said. "She'll give it back."
But as he told the men of Enoosaen, Ole-Nan'gea was wagering on more than the girl's intelligence and promise. James Ntaiya had suffered a series of strokes the year before and was back in his wife's house, an invalid, largely paralyzed. Sad as it was, his illness would provide all the doubters with a credible guarantee: This girl will return.
So one day in April 1999, Kakenya Ntaiya took center stage at yet another community ritual: a harambe, or fundraiser, on her behalf. What seemed like the entire village came to the party in the yard of the primary school, each guest bringing at least 5 shillings -- less than a dime -- as well as pumpkins and goats and cows to auction off. People danced, and the students sang a song; even the neighbor boy who had long since given up hope of marrying her entertained with a comedy routine.
Ntaiya wore a red dress, a heavy Masai necklace and a belt with the Kenyan flag. And she wept throughout the ceremony, overwhelmed by the sheer honor and stress of it all. There was the prominent female politician whom Ole-Ronkei had brought all the way from Nairobi, delivering a barnburner of a speech. "We are sending you to America to go get an education," she said. "This village needs you."
And then an elder stood up to make the point in a way that spoke to all their fears for her, and all their hopes. "We are sending you alone," he said, "and we want you to come back alone."
An Emotional Voyage
It would be almost nine more months and several agonizing delays on her visa before Ntaiya would board a plane in Nairobi and begin a dizzying, day-and-night trip to the United States.
She had never seen an airplane up close, let alone ridden in one, and she panicked before takeoff, expecting it to shoot straight up like a rocket. She didn't recognize the food and did not dare eat. She had never used a toilet so did not dare venture to the restroom. She stayed buckled in her seat, unable to sleep or talk or even think about the days ahead.
Yet when the plane landed, something broke loose in her after nearly a decade of striving, and she suddenly started weeping, an uncontrollable shuddering that would continue through two more long flights and all the way to Lynchburg.
I'm really doing this, she thought.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company