KAKENYA'S PROMISE: Graduation
Far From Home, a Mother Shares Triumph
Kenyan Takes In the American Experience Her Daughter Craved
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page A01
Anna Ntaiya stumbled on the moonlit road as she raced for the late-night bus to Nairobi.
She already was 20 miles from Enoosaen, her village in western Kenya with no running water or paved roads, a place where cattle outnumbered people and electricity did not arrive until the 21st century. There, she always stepped surely, in the viscous muck of her barnyard or on the rocky path to the market -- even in the dark and the rain, in sandals or barefooted.
But at the bus stop in Kilgoris, the town where the paved road begins, she was wearing a kind of shoe she had never worn before. Dark shoes, with a strap and a buckle and a hint of a heel. Shoes she had been given for her journey. Shoes she could wear in the United States.
And so she struggled to gain her balance and climbed aboard. Torrents of rain had fallen all week across Kenya, and the bus convulsed every few seconds as it hit another pock on the 300 miles of highway to the capital. Ntaiya would sleep little that night. She expected to sleep less the next one, on the flights from Nairobi to London to Washington. This was the path her eldest child had traveled more than four years earlier in pursuit of a degree from an American university, an ambition their neighbors had once mocked as folly. Now it was Ntaiya's duty to travel the path as well.
This month, more than a million students will graduate from colleges across the United States, and for most who embrace the ritual of cap and gown, a parent or two will travel to witness it. Usually it requires a couple hours on the move -- from Arlington to Charlottesville by car, perhaps, or from Dallas to Boston by air -- and a dent in the checkbook, all made worthwhile for the chance to bask in the glow of a child's accomplishment.
For 43-year-old Anna Ntaiya, the trip to her daughter Kakenya's graduation from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., would require months of deliberation and weeks of preparation and prayer. She would have to leave her struggling farm and her six children still at home for more than two weeks. And she would endure 60 hours of nearly nonstop travel from Enoosaen into what would seem like a different century altogether -- from a culture where no one owns a refrigerator or a television to one where everyone seemed to have a cell phone and a car.
Ntaiya, a dryly pragmatic woman, said she was going to the United States for three reasons: to see the daughter she had born at 17, to witness an educational triumph that far eclipsed anything ever achieved by a woman from Enoosaen, and to personally thank the many Americans who had made it possible.
"I have a lot of work to do," she said.
Like the buckled dress shoes, the trip had been a gift. Never could she have afforded it on her own, the $1,300 round-trip plane ticket alone costing more than what her cows and cornfields might gross in a good year. And this had not been a good year. There had been the drought that shrank her crops, the floods that washed away an entire acre of maize, the hyenas that devoured one of her cows and its newborn calf.
Some Americans had decided to sponsor Ntaiya's trip to Lynchburg -- people whose names she did not even know, supporters of Kakenya's college who had heard the story of the young Masai woman who was the first girl from her rural community to seek a university degree. And so the suitcase trembling on the bus rack above her seat was stuffed with tributes to the sponsors' generosity: a bracelet hand-beaded in the pattern of the Kenyan flag, a horsetail switch used in tribal ceremonies to administer blessings, a long skirt embroidered with medallions and tiny beads, gifts she intended to deliver as thanks.
For the college president who had given Kakenya a scholarship, Ntaiya packed a bracelet on which one of her sisters-in-law had beaded the woman's name. There was also a four-kilo bag of millet in her suitcase as a favor to a friend whose sister in Delaware was pining for such stuff.
But most essential was the dress for Kakenya. Red, close-fitting with a beaded neckline, it was the height of Masai elegance, and Ntaiya hoped her daughter could wear it at the graduation ceremony. It had taken her a week to sew.
"Is Kakenya huge?" Ntaiya asked in the English she had been practicing. Kakenya hadn't been home in 21/2 years. There was no post office in Enoosaen, so their letters took months to arrive, and there were no phone lines to enable them to talk, so there were many things she just couldn't know about her daughter anymore.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Kakenya Ntaiya greets her mother at Dulles International Airport. Anna Ntaiya's trip to Lynchburg, Va., was paid for by people who were inspired by Kakenya's quest for a college education in the United States.
(Jahi Chikwendi - Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)