In a New Country, Confusion and Doubts
Most of the time, frankly, she just had no idea what the man was talking about. It had nothing to do with her life. He kept throwing out references to things she had never heard of -- some ice-cream store, what was it, Bill & Jim's? Some sports team -- the Red Sauce?
Her brilliant classmates all knew what he meant and volunteered cryptic comments of their own. While Ntaiya sat in a silent rage: What is he talking about?
It never occurred to her, of course, to ask him. In Kenya, her teachers had stood before her classes as remote authority figures. Now, despite the intimate scale of Randolph-Macon, with few classes holding more than 15 students, she didn't know how to bridge that distance. How would she approach him? What would she say?
And, really, how could he help at all? The real problem was not the microeconomics of an ice-cream shop or a baseball team, after all.
It was the microeconomics of her own life.
Like how she could write a letter home but it would take a month to arrive and cost her mother either a seven-hour walk or a 120-shilling bus ride, about $1.60, to get to the Kilgoris post office to pick it up. And how her mother would write letters to her but they cost 80 shillings to send, which was only $1 but which Ntaiya knew would be enough in Enoosaen to buy shoes for her little sisters. And so the letters came only rarely, and when they did, she felt guilty.
Or how her father had suffered three strokes already and how they had surely reduced the number of months he had to live, and she had no idea how that number compared with the number of months until she could return.
Or how many hours she needed to work at the campus nursery school to make the $3,000 she was expected to contribute toward her tuition, and how she couldn't help but calculate that dollar amount into shillings and wonder, How will I ever do that? In Enoosaen, when she needed money for her trip, she had gone to her neighbors and they had provided. She had assumed it would work the same way with these people here. Somehow, it had not.
Most perplexing, though, was that ledger in her mind.
She had drawn it up during the long summer break she spent alone in Lynchburg -- a special list of Accounts Received and Accounts Due. There was the $3,000 her village had raised to send her to the United States to pursue this education. And in return, there were all these things she was supposed to give the community, through the benefit of this education.
And better roads.
And a maternity ward. And a school for girls.
And a way to purify the water that came up from the river on the backs of donkeys and sometimes made people sick. And assistance for the women who wanted to start businesses of their own. And an end to female circumcision, which she had endured herself but had learned in the course of researching a term paper carried tremendous health risks in addition to the barbaric pain. She had promised so much, and she had envisioned even more than she had promised, and never had she doubted that it would all come to pass. Because she was Kakenya Ntaiya, the girl who had raised a family and started a farm and gone to university ahead of any other woman from her village and always prevailed and always succeeded. And now her village was waiting for her.
And now she was failing.
A Single Need
For months, Ntaiya's vivacious charm had camouflaged the turmoil within. By November 2000, though, her depression grew obvious to those close to her and came to the attention of college officials. There would be much debate over the sources of her affliction and an appropriate cure. Eventually, most came to agree upon one simple factor:
A woman she had met through a local church heard the wistful way Ntaiya talked about her village. She called the college and donated $1,000 on Ntaiya's behalf. The teachers at the nursery school, meanwhile, had noticed how much she had been crying. They called the children's parents to round up other donations.
One week before the start of the Christmas break, college officials surprised her with a gift she had never expected: a plane ticket home. It had been a year full of tears, and Ntaiya wept once again.
So much her home would need from her. But now, she needed her home.
© 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.