In a New Country, Confusion and Doubts
White stuff. Everywhere. "Kat-reen!" she shrieked to her new roommate, "What is happening?"
For the previous three days, she had been too dazed and jet-lagged to notice much of anything about this new world. She had emerged from that terrifying first flight into the shimmering cathedral of plate-glass walls and moving sidewalks that was the Amsterdam international airport, all of it under a roof so vast it could have covered her entire village and perhaps some of its neighbors. She had landed in Lynchburg and been hugged by strangers and bundled into a minivan and swept off to the big American home of a Randolph-Macon official. Years later, she recalled almost nothing of that whirlwind trip, except how the night air of Virginia had cut through her unlined jacket like a cold knife.
Now, though, with three nights of sleep behind her, Ntaiya began to take it all in. And what an introduction! She had seen pictures of white-topped mountains before. But she had never imagined that snow went everywhere like this, clinging to the buildings and weighing down the trees.
What came next was even more astonishing. Quickly, the lawn outside their building began filling with students -- Ntaiya's classmates, young women like herself working toward degrees -- and they were romping in the snow, tossing it in the air. Some of her hall mates were even running up the hills with cafeteria trays and sofa cushions to do -- what? Sledding?
Ntaiya was shocked. Why, they were playing. Like little children. Like babies!
The extent to which fun and games mingled with the books and studies was her first big surprise about American college life. Ntaiya had little experience with fun and games. Like many rural Masai children, she had from the age of 5 or 6 handled such chores as sweeping the house and tending the cattle. Once she started school, her duties in a home with a working mother and an absent father had left her virtually no time to play. She never learned beadwork like the other girls of Enoosaen, never scampered from home to home with the packs of flirting teens.
But at Randolph-Macon, with only 750 students -- most living in the same rambling complex of dorms connected to century-old Main Hall -- fun and games were virtually instilled into the curriculum. Every week, it seemed, brought a bake sale or club party or Spirit Day of some kind. There were Big Sister-Little Sister festivities, pumpkin carvings and Faculty Appreciation Days, when they would hang streamers and posters on their advisers' office doors.
There were important traditions to learn -- how members of even-year classes, like Ntaiya, could use only the left-side staircase in Main Hall while "oddies" used the right-side staircase. And if they took the wrong stairs, then -- legend had it -- they wouldn't graduate. Even when there was nothing happening, there was something going on -- shopping trips or dining-hall debates or just a bunch of girls lounging in the hallways or someone's room to watch TV or listen to music or simply talk.
Ntaiya quickly warmed to the low-key frivolity of her new environment. Already 21, she had a chance to enjoy something of the adolescence she had missed. Enchanted by her classmates' casual style, she experimented with the kinds of fashion that would have scandalized back home -- spaghetti straps, baseball caps, just these looks that were so great. She tried miniskirts, makeup, high heels before realizing they were so not-for-Kakenya, but pants -- which she had never worn until her flight to the United States -- quickly became a cornerstone of her wardrobe.
Some aspects of this new social world were too daring. She was shocked to see couples kissing in public or to find visiting boyfriends show up in the communal bathrooms on weekends. But she gladly dipped a toe into the racier parts of popular culture, watching the lurid teen soap "Undressed" on cable and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" on video.
Most of all, she delighted in the incredible friendliness of America, a land where strangers smiled at her on the street and she could initiate a conversation with an elder who hadn't addressed her first. Yet this easy sociability concealed its own set of complex rules. Again and again, walking through the hallways or down a brick path, Ntaiya encountered someone who would look her in the eye, smile brightly, and say "Hey, Kakenya!" -- and then keep walking. Without stopping to talk!
It seemed a horrible snub, and Ntaiya never knew what to make of it. Each time, she wanted to grab the person and shout, "Did you really mean that?" Eventually, she confided her hurt and confusion to her roommate, Katherine Flansburg, and Flansburg explained: That's just how it works here.
Often, though, a bona fide conversation indeed followed those hellos, and all too often it would bring a new offer: Let's go to lunch! Or, Hey, would you like to go out to dinner? And maybe she would have a book to read, or a paper due that week, or maybe she would just be tired from everything else going on. But here was an invitation, and how could she dare say no?
So everyone would pile into a car and head out to one of the restaurants near the mall, where they would crowd into a booth and she would try to find something on the menu she could stand (none of this flavorless U.S. beef for her, none of these disgusting raw leaves her friends ate in huge quantities and called "salad"). It was all fun, but sometimes it was just too much.
And then the bill would arrive and she would suddenly realize that these people who had invited her . . . weren't actually going to pay for her. And she didn't have any money.
Someone always came to her rescue, Flansburg or another friend. Yet still there was the sting of confusion and embarrassment until finally it began to sink in. Just how, exactly, it all worked here.
Poise in the Spotlight
On her second night at Randolph-Macon, she was guest of honor at a welcome dinner thrown by the college's president, Kathleen Bowman. Connie Gores, the vice president of enrollment, later recalled seeing Ntaiya's eyes goggle at the sight -- a palatial house, ablaze with chandeliers.
© 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.