Lessons and Longing
In a New Country, Confusion and Doubts
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2003; Page A01
Third of four articles
The course was called Exploration into Religion, and it was about -- well, it had something to do with religion.
That's why Kakenya Ntaiya signed up for it. She knew religion. Every Sunday back home in Kenya, she walked the long, dusty path to the Pentecostal services at the village center. Her faith had carried her through so many hard times growing up -- when her parents fought, when they had no food -- and she could always find a Bible verse that spoke to her life in that particular moment. Religion, then, would be the one thing in this strange new country, with its relentless pace and subtle rules, that she could turn to and be at home.
But in this bright, antiseptic classroom at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, she found herself lost. The professor spoke an English that was slow and soft around the edges, bare relation to the crisp British she had mastered in secondary school. Now and then, he muttered something and her classmates laughed for reasons she couldn't discern. Even on the best days, her expertise was for naught. In her home, "religion" meant Christianity; she had also met a few Muslims. But here, long stretches of discussion were devoted to concepts utterly unfamiliar to her, with names like Buddhism and Judaism.
Amid the blur of voices, her mind drifted. What time was it back home in Enoosaen? Afternoon or early evening already? Was her mother in the fields or in the house taking a meal to her father's sickbed? Was she getting along all right without her eldest?
Was she thinking about her?
And so it went, through a baffling, wearying series of classes, until finally she could retreat to her room. There she found Katherine Flansburg, her wonderful roommate Katherine, who had joked with her and driven her to Wal-Mart and treated her to restaurant dinners. And day after day that first semester, when Ntaiya slumped into their room and collapsed on her bed and pulled a blanket over her face, Flansburg instinctively, unfailingly, did just the thing Ntaiya needed her to do.
She let her cry.
Ntaiya had spent years working toward the single, burning purpose of going to an American college.
She struggled to maintain good grades while helping raise her younger siblings and keep her mother's farm going. She haggled with her parents to get them to let her stay in school while most of her friends were disappearing into arranged marriages. She managed to catch the eye of a well-regarded private college in the United States, which was providing her with a nearly full scholarship. And she persuaded her village to support, for once, the ambitions of a girl and to raise the money for a trip that cost many times her family's annual income.
When her plane landed in Amsterdam in January 2000 on the first leg of her journey out of Africa, she exploded in tears of triumph and relief. At last, she had made it.
Never, though, during those years of struggle had she stopped to envision what might await her once she got here.
Life at a U.S. college would understandably throw some curves at a young Masai woman who had grown up without electricity or running water in a small mud-walled house, who had rarely worn shoes, who had never seen a movie or tasted ice cream or touched a computer.
The outlandish features of the modern developed world were the ones that gave her the least trouble. Within weeks of her arrival, Ntaiya was gamely watching MTV and learning to e-mail and perusing the sale racks at the mall. But for most of her first year, she found herself flummoxed by the subtler social and intellectual distinctions. Like how to take notes. Or when to end a conversation. Or how to get help.
The hard-won lessons from growing up in Enoosaen, it turned out, didn't always apply in this new world. It was a whole new education she had come here to receive. And much more of it than she ever expected came outside the classroom.
It started on her first day of classes, her third day in this country, when she looked out her dormitory window and saw -- what exactly?
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Kakenya Ntaiya worships at Family Life Christian Church International in Lynchburg. Each Sunday back home in her village in Kenya, she attended Pentecostal services at the village center.
(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.