In a New Country, Confusion and Doubts
But Ntaiya, still jet-lagged, would just remember the way that she had been surrounded by people chattering at her -- "How are you? How was your flight?" And she would remember the phalanx of linen and silver that confronted her when she sat down to eat. Only the night before had she used a fork for the first time, and her beef stew dribbled everywhere. But with all eyes on her, she dared not falter.
She glanced at the woman sitting next to her, who was putting a napkin in her lap. Ntaiya picked up her napkin and placed it in her own lap. Then her tablemate picked up a fork, so Ntaiya did the same.
For all her nervousness, Ntaiya made a dazzling impression. Everyone who met her in those early days recalled being charmed by her smile and awed by her poise. It was her life story, though, that brought the most attention. Her nationality hardly set her apart: Over the previous decade, Randolph-Macon had made a concerted effort to diversify its student body -- offering scholarships to foreign undergraduates, unlike many U.S. colleges -- and by the time Ntaiya arrived, nearly one of every eight students was from overseas.
Yet none of her classmates -- indeed, few of her fellow international students across the United States -- had been raised in the kind of poverty and isolation found in Enoosaen. And few others could boast the kind of exotic cachet that came with her identity as Masai, the handsome tribe of nomads celebrated by Ernest Hemingway and National Geographic.
Ntaiya quickly became a hot property. She was interviewed by the student newspaper, enlisted as a campus tour guide and photographed for an admissions recruiting poster. She was filmed for a documentary about her life that was presented at the kickoff for the college's capital fundraising campaign.
Her classmates, meanwhile, were enthralled by her accounts of growing up without electricity and drinking cow's blood mixed with warm milk. Ntaiya thrived on the attention and happily answered their questions, no matter how silly -- "Do you have monkeys where you live?" "Would I be safe if I came to visit you?"
Even the comments tinged with condescension or naiveté -- "Wait, you have syringes," asked a hall mate upon hearing how the cow's blood was extracted, "but you don't have shoes?" -- she fielded with good humor. It was good they were asking, she reasoned, and good that she had a chance to educate people about her culture.
Other times, though, the attention seemed cloying. Her new friends gushed over her charming accent and enthusiastically assessed her exotic looks. They cut out magazine photos of the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, insisting she resembled Ntaiya -- and wouldn't it be cool if Ntaiya shaved her head as well? -- when really all the two shared was the dark-coffee complexion.
Ntaiya always smiled, but in their room she sometimes complained to Flansburg that she felt she was being treated like a child. "I'm a woman!" she'd say.
Yet the truth was that Ntaiya did stand apart from her classmates and was indeed reliant on them. She did need help learning how to use the computers and the reference section of the library, and she did need the charity of her new friends. Everyone knew her story, knew that she had arrived bearing only a few outfits in her suitcase, and she quickly filled her closet with the hand-me-down sweaters and jeans donated by her peers.
It was a thrill at first, all these free clothes, and she couldn't believe her good fortune. But as the donations continued to pile up in bags left outside her door, her joy turned to unease. Some of the items had holes or stains. Did her new friends really find her so pitiable?
One evening, at a crowded table in the dining hall, a girl pointed out the shirt Ntaiya was wearing and mentioned that it used to belong to her. Ntaiya smiled and laughed softly. But back in her room, she raged with anger and shame. Never before or since did Flansburg hear such language from her pious, polite roommate:
"That damn [expletive] girl!"
Through it all, though, she had Katherine.
Flansburg was a redheaded education major from Illinois with a directness and self-possession that would, in a few years, lead her to lose 55 pounds, get engaged and win a Fulbright. She had written an essay on her application stating her preference for an international roommate -- going so far as to enthuse about the multicultural benefits of sharing a room with "a girl from an African village." Still, she was astonished to see a photo of her future roommate in the long, red skirts and heavy beaded necklaces of Masai custom.
Ntaiya recalled that Flansburg "took me like a sister" from the start, talking her through the hard times and introducing her to such wonders as movies and bicycles. She also seemed to distinguish herself by teasing Ntaiya mercilessly. In other words, treating her like anyone else.
"She will not eat salad!" Flansburg exclaimed to a visitor one evening in the dining hall several months after Ntaiya's arrival. "We went to Taco Bell and got a taco. It had lettuce on it, and she had to pick it off."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company