In a New Country, Confusion and Doubts
Ntaiya hunched in a chair on the other side of the table and chortled as her roommate charged on.
"She puts orange juice in the microwave!" Flansburg declared with mock exasperation. "She hates the taste of cold stuff."
Ntaiya laughed so hard she had to work to catch her breath.
"What about your first ice cream cone? She took two bites, and 'Oh, it's so cold!' The look on her face, it was like something bit her."
Ntaiya beamed. "She knows me better than I know myself."
Flansburg kept herself busy cataloguing Ntaiya's choicer malapropisms. "Someone would knock on the door, and she'd say, 'Get inside!' "
"I didn't know," Ntaiya protested. "I was so innocent."
"She would say, 'Pick the phone,' instead of 'Pick up the phone' . . . "
Ntaiya's laugh trailed off into a contented sigh.
"She has been so good," Ntaiya said.
In the classroom, though, she was on her own.
Or at least that's how it seemed. This microeconomics professor -- he just made her so angry. He wasn't helping her! She had come here to learn, and he acted like they already knew economics. But she didn't, and she was failing this class in the field she had chosen as her major, the field she had thought she would pursue one day as a banker in Kenya.
Why did I come here, she asked herself, if I'm not doing well?
It was her second semester, the fall of 2000. Somehow, she had made it through that first semester. With a lightweight schedule of courses, she barely eked out a B average. Her advisers seemed satisfied, but to Ntaiya -- accustomed to an easy, unbroken series of A's -- the whole endeavor seemed a disaster.
Much of the problem was language. She had taken nearly 10 years of English instruction in school. But for more than two years after graduation she had been stalled at home, plotting her future from a community where everyone spoke Maa and her English could only atrophy. There was also this different teaching style. At home, her teachers wrote all the information the students needed to know on the chalkboard, and they simply copied it. Here, they were expected to pluck the professors' words from the air and write them down as fast as they came. Ntaiya couldn't do it. She sat through the lectures, then borrowed her classmates' notes.
And while her teachers back home sometimes had them read sections of a textbook -- which might be shared by several students -- here they were expected to read entire books, many of them in a semester. Ntaiya had never read an entire book until a year earlier -- an inspirational memoir by Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon Ben Carson that she found on a visa-application trip to Nairobi. She devoured that book; but here she found herself having to read chapters a second or third time before the facts and themes would find traction in her brain.
And now, microeconomics.
© 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.