Searching to Bring the Lessons Home
Weeks later, Ntaiya acknowledged her mother's version of the story. So maybe it's true, she admitted: Maybe they were fine without her and never needed her to save the day. But her father had died! How could she have nursed her grief alone in Lynchburg? How could she not have gone back? She remained convinced that she would have been debilitated by her sorrow, that she would have failed her exams -- even flunked out of college -- had she not boarded that plane.
"The best thing for me," she said, "was to go home."
A Mother's Trials
Anna Ntaiya walked through the barnyard in the cool, gray dawn last summer, her feet turned out in a way that suggested a dancer's strength. She approached a glossy brown cow and bent at the waist, her back perfectly straight in the manner of many Masai women. She drew on a teat with one hand, and a thin white stream came hissing into the red plastic pitcher she held in the other.
She is, by the standards of Enoosaen, a prosperous woman now. She owns 40 acres and farms five of them -- mostly maize, but also banana and kale. She has 40 cows and 12 calves. It's a lot of work, but she has help. For the fields, she has three men who work in exchange for a place in the barn to sleep and an acre of maize apiece. To herd the livestock, she has two young boys who cost her about $20 a month. For the milking, she has the kitchen woman, who also helps keep house in exchange for her own acre of maize and a place by the fire to sleep.
And for the moment, Anna had Naserian. Here was the third of her eight children, grappling with a surly black bovine on the far side of the yard.
"It does not want to be milked, so I'm tying the legs together," Naserian said wryly. An oversize calf came sniffing around the udder, and she swatted it away with a switch.
Naserian had returned. A round-faced young woman with a musical voice and a flirtatious way of rolling her eyes, she said she wanted to continue with school but money ran out. The farm's total annual earnings of 70,000 shillings -- about $1,000 -- just barely covers private school tuition for the five younger children. In a couple of years, when the boys are done, perhaps it will be Naserian's turn to go to college.
"My mother," she said hopefully, "is looking for ways."
Over the next couple of weeks, the full story would come out, in letters and tapes sent to Ntaiya. Naserian had indeed left home to get married, the choice for so many smart girls in a village with so little else to do. But her boyfriend had run into problems on his job, and the result was that he was not quite ready to support a wife.
And so Anna went to the boyfriend's house. She dragged Naserian out and brought her home. On her own, she stopped that marriage.
Ntaiya maintained that she wasn't surprised. She always knew that Anna could straighten things out at home. She just couldn't bear the fact that her mother had to do it alone.
"My mom intervened now, but what about tomorrow?" she said bleakly one afternoon in Lynchburg. "She works so hard. But we still let her down. . . . "
Meanwhile, Ntaiya remained underwhelmed by the progressive spirit of Enoosaen that had burst forth in her absence.
"Everybody wants to do this and this," she groaned. "Back home, it's a lot of, 'Oh yeah, we want them to go to school.' But it's nothing for parents to say 'education' -- there's no force behind it."
She laughed, and added with a touch of self-mockery, "I am the force!"
A Vision of Home
It is fall semester 2003, and Ntaiya has finally got this place figured out. On a slow morning, she is zipping through her French homework during her shift as monitor in the study center. She shoots a glance at her friend Rajeena, who is laboring through early pages of Shakespeare's "Henry V."
"You know, if you see the movie tonight . . . ," Ntaiya offers.
"She said you won't understand it if you haven't read the book," Rajeena replies.
Ntaiya shrugs. "I'm just saying. . . . "
She graduates this spring after what she expects will be a senior year of almost straight A's, a happy recovery from her rough first semesters. She plans to work for a year -- and maybe go home for a visit -- before enrolling in a graduate program for international relations. She is unsure how she will finance her studies; she is hoping to find another scholarship.
She has become, in her own words, more "self-centered" -- more independent, more focused on her own goals. It meant learning to say no -- to the dinner she couldn't afford, to the speech a church wanted her to give, to another time-consuming stint as a campus tour guide. It meant saving those rare extra dollars rather than trying to send them home, so she could buy the clothes she would need here, for a job interview, for herself.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company