Searching to Bring the Lessons Home
Her friendships are as plentiful as ever. Since her beloved roommate Katherine graduated last spring, her best friends are the other African girls, whose numbers have grown at Randolph-Macon. They are from disparate nations and disparate ethnic groups; little in common, really, except that they all appreciate those differences in a way their American classmates rarely can.
She is more apt to criticize the American mentality now -- how her classmates tend to waste so much food or complain about the new cars their parents bought them. Yet she also finds herself succumbing now and then -- five kinds of body lotion on her dresser and she'll still go out and buy a different one. And then feel guilty.
But her plan? Her plan, she swears, has never changed. Ten years from now, she declares, she will be living in Enoosaen in a home she has built for herself. And she will have opened that school for girls.
"I'll have seen the fruits of my work," she says. "I'll have brought many of the changes for supporting women and girls."
She is lingering over a lunch of chicken and rice at her favorite Indian restaurant, where the maitre d' fusses over her like visiting royalty. And she is discussing her plan with the ease of an old politician, rarely letting the details get in the way of her vision.
Where will the money for the school come from? "That's a hard question . . . ," she says smoothly. What about the need for running water? "I think it's an issue . . . it's a matter of priorities." And what kind of job, exactly, will enable her to live in Enoosaen?
"That," she admits, "is a good one."
She would love to work for UNICEF or the World Bank or perhaps a relief group -- something that would allow her to help people throughout Africa. Quite possibly, she acknowledges, she would have to be based in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, a city of more than 2 million people, eight hours from Enoosaen.
"It's hard to have an office in my village. It's very underdeveloped," she says. "But if I work in Nairobi, I know I'd be home every weekend."
There are so many things she wants to do. After she's started the school for girls, she will open a library. Sounds ambitious, but really, she argues, such things are easier than they seem. "It can be in my own home, with my own set of books, a place the children can study," she says.
Simple enough. But what about the other promises? Like the small-business assistance. Or that maternity clinic?
Suddenly, Ntaiya wilts. "Oh my Lord."
She sinks back into the vinyl booth.
"I'm just praying to God that these things will happen."
She thinks for a second. "It's so overwhelming," she says. "But I have to do it, or I've locked doors for other people. If you don't keep your word, it's very hard for the next."
But is that the way anyone from Enoosaen sees it? Sure, her return would be nice, says Morompi Ole-Ronkei, the Enoosaen native who mentored Ntaiya to college, and certainly she should try to help the community if she can. First, though, "you are obligated to yourself to be the very best," he says.
Meanwhile, she has already brought change to Enoosaen. Just by leaving -- and returning -- she has changed minds.
So what if they told her that? What if the elders who sent her here came to her and said, You've done enough? That she had inspired the children and respected the culture -- and that now she owed them nothing more?
Ntaiya is perplexed. Owe them? That's not the point, she says. And then she turns the tables on her questioner.
"You saw it," she says. You saw the green hills vanish into the unelectrified dusk and slept through a tomb-quiet night. You awoke to the sounds of the birds and ate the good fresh beef. You felt the clay under your feet and heard the old stories around a kerosene lamp and played with the children from the farm next door. "Wouldn't you go back?" she asks.
Especially if it were your home?
"It's not about owing," she says finally. "It's about the need in my heart."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company