Searching to Bring the Lessons Home
"Say 'Well done,' " the teacher told the class, and a chorus of 90 little voices took up the chant: "Well done! Well done!"
This is Ntaiya's alma mater nearly 10 years after she left it. In January, President Mwai Kibaki instituted a policy of free primary education, inspiring hundreds of thousands of families to enroll their children in public school for the first time. In just a few months, enrollment at Enoosaen Primary surged 25 percent. Some of the first-graders are as old as 9 or 10, only now starting their education.
Not everyone is here. Many children are still at home to work the fields or herd the cows, among them Ntaiya's cousin Musungu, a sweet, fatherless boy with a closed-mouthed smile that hides his speckled teeth.
But never have there been so many in school, and the old place looks fantastic these days, people keep saying. Three years ago, it got its first glass windows and running water. And other things are changing, said head teacher John Ole-Kararam, a polite, energetic man in a suit jacket and sweater vest. There are almost as many girls as boys now. Even in eighth grade, where Ntaiya had found herself one of only two girls, there are 19 girls in a class of 32. Fewer are disappearing into early marriages, which some attribute to the fact that more are refusing circumcision, traditionally the last step before marriage. Ole-Kararam credits a German organization that has lectured in the schools about the health risks of female circumcision. And all the children have heard about the girl who went to America, he said.
"We tell them, 'If you study hard, you can go to secondary, you can go to college like Kakenya.' "
Investing in Education
Everyone in the village, it seems, is talking about education these days.
Leah Paranai Matankori showed up one morning to help the Ntaiyas bathe their oxen in bug spray. She is comfortable trudging through the barnyard muck in long skirts and flimsy sandals, like the other Masai women. But her clothes had been plucked from the secondhand piles with a strikingly Western eye -- a matching velour top and skirt, DKNY sandals. And she trailed an American visitor until she could find the right moment to ask her question:
"Is it difficult for me to come to the U.S. now?"
She was one of the young students Ntaiya taught in Sunday school years ago, the eldest child of a single mother. Now she is 18 years old, and she has finished high school. When her mother tried to arrange a marriage for her last year, she fled. She made her way to a city several hours away and hid for a couple of months, working on voter registration and as a nanny. When she earned enough money, she bought clothes for her mother -- to mend the rift, and plant the idea that an educated, working daughter might be worth more than a married one.
Matankori had applied to a teachers academy and a nursing college, both in Kenya, but American diplomas, she is convinced, are more valuable. She was unsure how she would pay for either kind of education; she makes about $22 a month as a grammar school aide. Yet she looked to the example of Kakenya Ntaiya.
"I will arrange for a fundraiser," she said brightly.
And maybe it would work. Maybe the people of Enoosaen would be ready to support the ambitions of another girl. For everyone, it seems, is talking about education.
"It can change the community," said Cornell Musungui, a pastor and proprietor of a veterinary supply shop. "It can bring development to the countryside. With education, someone can see far, far away."
"It is education that will let them understand that circumcision is bad," said Arami Sieur, a mother of six.
"Enoosaen," said On'goni Ole-Nan'gea, an influential landowner, "needs to raise the standards of the schools."
These are the middle-aged of Enoosaen. Most left school early, or never spent a day in class. Many of the women had their first babies by 15 while the men spent their early twenties in the wilderness, hunting wild animals and receiving the wisdom of elders -- the process of becoming a Masai warrior. Now, by and large, they question that path.
"We wasted a lot of time in the bush," said shopkeeper William Kononkoi with a sigh.
"When I was young, I was clever," said David Chemonget, another shopkeeper whose lobes are intricately sliced and stretched and tucked around the backs of his ears, a relic of his warrior years. "I wish I had gone to school."
They have seen what schooling can bring. The tribes that embraced education early have fared much better than the Masai, said Lazaro Kiruta Ole-Ntuiyutiai, a lean, weathered man who farms 50 acres and fathered 20 children.
So they want their children to stay in school. To go to college. To become doctors or teachers or political leaders. And it's not such a terrifying idea anymore to send a girl out into the world. Not since Kakenya Ntaiya came back.
They're still talking about her two visits to Enoosaen. How she looked so thin, yet also so young and happy. How her clothes were so sharp -- so American. But also how she was still so respectful, a good Masai girl in a long skirt.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Elder tribeswomen in Enoosaen gather at Anna Ntaiya's home to talk about daughter Kakenya's daring achievement: getting an education in the United States. Many of the women in the village had their first babies by age 15.
(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.