KAKENYA'S PROMISE : 'Wouldn't You Go Back?'
Searching to Bring the Lessons Home
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2003; Page A01
Last of four articles
Kakenya Ntaiya had a message for her mother.
"With God, anything is possible," she said, her voice a sweetly earnest lecture. "Just a little ant can move mountains."
Anna Ntaiya craned forward, chin in hand, to hear every word from the child she had not seen in 18 months. Her eyes glistened in the glow of a kerosene lamp.
It was a balmy night last summer, and several of Anna's village friends, gray-streaked young grandmothers in beads and long skirts, sat around her. They smiled at the look on Anna's face as the eldest of her eight children continued, switching without segue between English and the Masai tongue.
"He will protect you," Kakenya said. "He will deliver the angels to help you."
Anna's lips froze in a near smile, as if a stray breath might shatter the moment. "She is preaching to the community," someone explained in a whisper.
Then Anna picked up the tape recorder that was filling the room with her daughter's voice. She pressed it to her ear and drifted out of the hut alone.
Kakenya Ntaiya was far from home. She was in Virginia playing hide-and-seek and wiping little faces as a counselor for the 7-year-old set at a church day camp. She was living in a big Victorian house with a very nice family that was not her own.
It had been more than four years since she persuaded the people of Enoosaen to send her to college in the United States -- to support, for once, those grand ambitions in a girl. She had made many promises in exchange for their endorsement and had half assumed that she'd be ready to return by now to start delivering on them. That she would be trying to open a school for girls. Or a clinic. Or helping those women sitting around her mother's table start their own businesses.
But for now she was not doing any of those things. She was getting ready for her senior year at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg. Her education had made her realize just how big the world was. How vast the needs. And how much more she had to learn before she could really make a difference in a Kenyan village with no running water, with no paved roads. She would have to get a master's degree.
And then a doctorate.
Or perhaps a law degree, which would mean several more years in America before she could try to make good on her promises.
Earlier in the summer, Ntaiya had received news that fed her guilt over leaving home. Her 20-year-old sister Naserian was getting married -- throwing away the education their mother had labored to provide and rushing into the kind of careless young union that Ntaiya felt had doomed so many of their childhood friends to poverty.
"If I were there," she said bitterly, "I could stop this marriage."
But she was not there. And so there were things she simply could not do, and things she could not see. Like how a few homes now had electricity. And how the policies of Kenya's new president had filled the village school with children. And how, among even some of the people closest to her, attitudes about women and education were fast evolving.
Her home was changing, without her. Just as she was changing without her home.
Eager Young Minds
In a bare-walled room under a corrugated metal roof last summer, Piun Rugut's first-grade math class came to order.
No sooner had Rugut written a problem on the board, 1 + 2 =, than he was rewarded. In a threadbare double-breasted blazer, he strode purposefully through the forest of raised arms before bestowing the chalk on a boy near the back of the room.
The boy approached the chalkboard and scratched out his calculation, scrawling a "3" onto the end of the equation.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company