Searching to Bring the Lessons Home
Her very thoughts were different, they noticed -- broader, more open-minded. She could sit and talk with the men, like an equal.
But she was still Kakenya. She had gone to the far side of the world, and she had not gotten lost. She had exceeded their expectations and vanquished their fears. She was alive, she was well. She had returned.
"The first day she came back, she came and greeted me," Chemonget said proudly. "She is a very disciplined girl."
The first trip was at Christmas of 2000, after a demoralizing first year at college, when her new American friends chipped in for a plane ticket. With no phone lines to the village, there was no way to let her family know she was coming, and it was pure delight to see the shock on their faces, the way they all came running when she suddenly walked through the barnyard gate.
She was in for some surprises of her own. When she drank the water -- the stuff she grew up drinking, that came up from the river on the backs of donkeys -- she got so sick that she had to stick to bottled water for the rest of her month there. The milk, with the rich flavor she had missed so much, she somehow couldn't stomach anymore. And when she tried to carry the firewood -- she had always carried the firewood -- she felt like her back would give out!
In deference to her new worldliness, her mother and sister brought bath water to the house for her, as they might for a visitor from the city. Ntaiya scoffed and took her bath in the river, as she always had.
Other things had changed in her absence. A young man she had thought of as her boyfriend, who had been writing to her as recently as August, had married a village girl. In the market, he would not meet her eyes. She suspected he had been pressured by his family to wed.
And then there was Nasieku, the sister just two years younger.
Before Ntaiya left for college, she had stopped her from getting married. She had gone to the boyfriend's house and dragged her sister out and sent her back to school. Now it was crushing to learn months later that Nasieku had run away. Ntaiya returned home to find her with a husband, a tiny baby in her arms and no diploma.
So many things about her culture infuriated Ntaiya. Yet it was her culture. When the community gathered that month to see the latest group of girls initiated into womanhood through circumcision ceremonies, Ntaiya attended despite her growing resentment of the rite. She wore an American baseball cap, brim turned defiantly backward.
Called to Act
Almost a year later, Randolph-Macon President Kathleen Bowman pulled her from class to tell her that her father had died.
Administrators tried to dissuade her from returning home. It was three months after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, and security was tightening everywhere. If you go, they warned, you might not be able to get back.
But she had to go. Ntaiya and her father had become close during those final years after his strokes. She had slept at the hospital so she could be there to feed him. Later, as he was confined to his bed at home, he would call to her -- "My child, come here." He asked her to look after her brothers and sisters if he should leave them.
So she had to put things in order.
Under Masai custom, a widow often was taken in by one of her husband's brothers as a second wife -- and Ntaiya could not allow that to happen to her mother. If her mother remarried, then one of the uncles would control the farm they had worked so hard to cultivate. He would control the family. He could marry off the girls or make the boys drop out of school.
Ntaiya got a waiver to postpone her exams and boarded a plane to Nairobi and arrived in her village the day after her father's funeral. She spoke to her mother and urged her not to remarry. She spoke to her uncles and urged them not to pursue her mother but to instead offer some no-strings support. She set things straight.
Except that, according to her mother, it didn't happen that way.
"I'm a Christian," said Anna Ntaiya, just a touch of indignation in her voice.
She is a shy woman with a warm, throaty voice and an air of faintly amused skepticism. As a black-and-white hen poked around her living room in search of a spot to lay an egg, she explained why she never for a second considered entering into a polygamous union with any of her brothers-in-law. Certainly such a tradition exists, she said, but a woman always has the right to say no. And she had always intended to go it alone. No matter what her daughter feared.
"Her worries were not good," Anna said gently.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company