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Kakenya's Promise

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Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; 11:00 AM

No daughter of her village had gone to college -- or anywhere alone, really -- until Kakenya Ntaiya. Kakenya's decision to accept a scholarship from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., was revolutionary in her remote Masai village, where young women rarely stayed in school beyond eighth grade. But, armed with courage and curiousity, she left Africa to attend college.

Her journey is detailed in Kakenya's Promise , a series chronicling Kakenya's experiences from the village of Enoosaen, Kenya, to Lynchburg, Va., to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College.

Washington Post Staff Writer Amy Argetsinger was online Wednesday, May 19 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the series.

In August, staff writer Amy Argetsinger and staff photographer Jahi Chikwendiu went to Enoosaen to visit Kakenya's home. This month, they returned to Enoosaen to follow Kakenya's mother, Anna Ntaiya, on her first trip out of Africa to attend her daughter's graduation.

Argetsinger, a native of Alexandria, has been a reporter with The Post since 1995.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Amy Argetsinger: Writing about the remarkable life of Kakenya Ntaiya was both a great challenge and a great joy for me, so it was an honor to get to chronicle her mother Anna's journey to America this month. I look forward to hearing your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Amy, great story. How did you meet Kakenya in the first place?

Amy Argetsinger: Thanks so much. I cover higher education for the Metro section of the Post, which means that I keep an eye on all the colleges and universities in our wider readership area. I first heard about Kakenya from Michael Kiser, the director of communications at Randolph-Macon Woman's College who called me in the spring of 2001 to suggest her as a story idea. I think they expected I'd write a short story that month... but once I met Kakenya, I realized her story was worthy of so much more! Three years later, I'm glad to present the results!

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Richmond, Va.: Can you clarify how Kakenya ended up in Virginia? Her village sounds so rustic, how did she ever find Randolph-Macon? Or how did R-M find her?

Amy Argetsinger: It's an interesting story, and I explain it at greater length in part two of the original series that ran in December (you can find a link on today's story). In short, though, Kakenya's one college mentor -- the first man from her village to have attended college -- just happened to have studied in the U.S. at the University of Oregon, where he happened to have met an administrator named Kathleen Bowman who went on to become president of RMWC. It was the only U.S. college Kakenya applied to.

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Alexandria, Va.: What a wonderful series this has been.

What are Kakenya's plans now? You mentioned she wants to get a masters -- has she been accepted anywhere?

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya hopes to enter an American graduate school in the fall of 2005, after working for a year. She's exploring many options right now.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Ms. Argetsinger,
Truly excellent article today. I thank you for writing it.
From what I understand, traditional Masaii culture is particularly insular and difficult for outsiders to access. Did you find that to be true? If so, how did it affect your visits/ experiences with this family and their village?

Amy Argetsinger: We found the people of Enoosaen, and particularly the Ntaiya family, to be very welcoming. It certainly helped, though, that both Jahi and I knew Kakenya as well as her hometown mentor Ole-Ronkei.

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Texas: Were all of the "stream of consciousness" passages in your article (steps involved in washing hands, salad as goat food, etc.) based on things the woman actually said to you? Or were you doing a little speculating on what must have been going through her head?

Amy Argetsinger: The women were very eager to share their observations on American life, so yeah, it's what they told me.

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Jakarta, Indonesia: This was a wonderful series. Kakenya's experience of overwhelming opportunities and responsibilities is common to all college kids, yet also unique to her circumstances and background.

What do think is the toughest part now, for Kakenya? Does she still plan to return to her village? What next for her?

And how did you as author and chronicler feel doing this story. Is this a happy story for you, or one of struggle.

Amy Argetsinger: The toughest part for Kakenya, I think, was her first year in America, which you can read about in Part Three of the original series. Looking ahead, she wants very badly to return to Enoosaen, though she realizes it will be unlikely she can maintain a full-time presence there. The brilliant career she has ahead of her will almost certainly require her to live in a city...

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Lansdale, Pa.: How does the college plan to bring more African students to the student body?

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya was one of the first African students to come to RMWC, but since she arrived many others have enrolled, and many of her best friends are fellow students from Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Ethiopia, etc. RMWC is very global -- about one in eight students are from overseas now.

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Crystal City, Va.: So sad to hear Kakenya and her family did not enjoy our food. Did they ever mention any foods or snacks that they DID enjoy? Did Kakenya discover any other ethnic foods that she particularly liked (Mexican, Chinese, etc.)?

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya LOVES Indian food, and I think she's had some success getting her mother and Noonkuta to try it. For the most part, though, Anna and Noonkuta have most enjoyed our foods that most resemble theirs -- rice, cooked vegetables, beef, etc.

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Baltimore, Md.: I was absolutely amazed by the series -- and of course the subject. I've clipped them to try and convince my brother college is more important than parties and beer.

Do you have any idea what Kakenya's relationship with her siblings has been since she moved, and do any of them wish to follow in her footsteps?

Also, its clear that Kakenya benefited from her education, Randolph-Macon benefited, and the Post readers benefited -- what about her village?

Amy Argetsinger: It's been so hard for Kakenya to be away from her siblings. I know it made her very wistful to see the photos Jahi and I brought back this month, to see how big the little kids have grown. Her brother Benard will be finishing high school in a few months, and I know he wants to come to the U.S. Also, 8-year-old Seenoi always tells her mother "I want to go where Kakenya is!"

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Landover, Md.: I was bought to tears many times while reading this article. Did visiting Kakenya's village have this type of affect on you as well?

Amy Argetsinger: I only cried when I had to leave.

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washingtonpost.com: Kakenya's Promise: The Series (Post, May 19)

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Lynchburg, Va.: When you visited Kakenya's village, did you find that her example had inspired the girls?

Amy Argetsinger: Yes! Everyone we met -- including little kids she had never known -- would ask us "do you know Kakenya?" and it seemed like a lot of girls were now eager to follow in her steps.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a question regarding the visa issue. You only give the issue one line talking about a sympathetic consular person. I work in international development. My company had business partners from developing countries who are in executive-level positions and had visas denied. Some other business guest of hours had a visa but was detained and immediately deported and our conference lacked the key speaker. Was it really that easy for a Masaii woman without education and or assets to obtain a visa? Don't get me wrong, if yes that means there are in fact some smart people working our embassies.

Amy Argetsinger: I'm not sure that it was easy. Morompi Ole-Ronkei, the Enoosaen native who now lives in the city, told us that last year an elderly couple who were trying to come to America for a young man's graduation were denied at first because they didn't have proof they had the assets in Kenya that would prompt them to return. Ole-Ronkei told us he made a lot of phone calls in advance of our embassy trip to make sure things would go better for Anna and Noonkuta.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: What was her major, her interests, and plans for the future?

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya majored in International Studies and Political Science. She hopes to go to graduate school and then eventually back to Kenya in a job that will allow her to help her village as well as address the larger issues (famine, disease, education, poverty) of importance to Africa.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hello, Amy. I loved your descriptions of Kakenya's first meals here. Would you tell us a bit about your food experiences while in Kenya?

Amy Argetsinger: I loved the food! Very heavy on starches -- rice, ugali, potatos -- but everything was so fresh and free of pesticides or hormones... the beef was divine.

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Texas: You may have mentioned this in one of the earlier articles, but ... What is the family's religion?

Amy Argetsinger: They are Christians, members of a Pentecostal congregation in Enoosaen.

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Arlington, Va.: Although I understand allowing international students to attend American colleges and universities, don't her countrymen see and understand the need to develop an internal education system? Doesn't all this hype discourage them from doing so, as they now see that a freebie education is available in America?

Amy Argetsinger: One of Kakenya's many goals is to open a school for girls in her hometown, and I suspect that many of the international students educated in the U.S. return to their home countries inspired by our system and hoping to make changes in their own. As to your latter question, Kakenya was extremely lucky -- most U.S. colleges do not provide scholarships to international students.

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Washington, D.C.: What did you think of ugali?

Amy Argetsinger: Funny, that was the question everyone asked me in Enoosaen! "Do you like ugali?" "Can you eat ugali?" and they would burst out laughing when I said "yes." I don't think they believed me. But I did, I liked it!

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Bethesda, Md.: You did a great job with a heartwarming story. What was their reaction to flight take-off and landing?

Amy Argetsinger: They HATED take-off and landing!!! But I decided not to make too much of that point -- lots of jet-setting Americans hate those too.

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Vienna, Va. : I'm curious about her own future family plans. Has she said anything about hoping to marry someone from her village or do you think she is more likely to end up with an American?

Amy Argetsinger: If I had to place a bet (and Kakenya is probably DYING right now about this question), I would guess that when it comes to that point, she would probably marry another Kenyan who shares her educational background.

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India: Hi,
please ask her how her fellow students reacted to her achievements. How many people are inspired by her move and who is her inspiration

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya's "exotic" background got her a lot of attention at RMWC, but she's very modest, and she told me that many of her good friends said they weren't aware of exactly all of the challenges she had to overcome until they read the series in December. They were very moved and touched, she said.

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Bethesda, Md.: I just want to thank you for your remarkable series of articles; they are the essence of great journalism and I encourage newspapers everywhere to generate similar stories. Too often, we tend to be self-absorbed as Americans, with not enough awareness of life in remote corners of the globe. How fortunate for us that we have Kakenya to enrich us with her and her family's stories. I send Kakenya, her mother, and the rest of their family and village my warmest greetings and wishes for success. Kakenya, I salute the path you have chosen; know that you have many people, including a stranger like myself, cheering you on. Amy, please don't let this article be an "epilogue"; I would love for it to be a continuation of the same story and for it not to end here. I want to learn more about the mother-daughter reunion, Kakenya's graduation, and how she makes her way in the world. I am also a parent, and I love being able to educate my son with upbeat stories like these. Consider a full-length book on Kakenya's life and a children's book informing kids about what life is like in rural Kenya. Thank you again so very much.

Amy Argetsinger: Thank you so much.

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Annandale, Va.: Congratulations to Amy and photographer for telling a totally engaging human interest story. Not having read the earlier series, I couldn't put today's story down until finishing it. One of the best shots is the picture of the graduate, her mother, and the president of Randolph-Macon Macon's board of trustees. The president appears overwhelmed with joy and emotion. And congratulations to the Post's editor for putting some joy on the front page.

Amy Argetsinger: Aren't the photos fantastic? Jahi Chikwendiu is one of the best in the business. Thanks so much!

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Manhattan, Kan.: I myself came from another country and actually went to a university in Virginia. I cannot imagine how she can survive all this long without any sufficient contact with her kinfolks! Has she ever been afraid or lonely and how does she handle that?

Amy Argetsinger: Oh, it was very difficult for her... Part Three of the original series describes what it was like for her, having so little contact with her family. I'd say it was almost her undoing that first year. But she says that she had gone through too much to get here, so there was no way she would ever quit.

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washingtonpost.com: Kakenya's Promise: The Series (Post, May 19)

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Washington, D.C.: A note for the person who asked about the visas issue:

I think if the ladies were accompanied by Washington Post reporters/photographers, or provided a link to the articles, that may have made it easier for them to get the visas.

The embassies usually just want to make sure people are just looking to get to U.S. soil to then turn around and then try to extend their stays through legal or illegal means. As the writers pointed out, this may also be easier to prove for 'simple' people like Kakenya's mom, rather than 'corporate' middle-class business partners. (I was an international student and met very many while in college.)

Amy Argetsinger: Good question, and it allows me the chance to clarify a few things. Jahi and I went to the embassy with the women, but we stood back in a kind of fly-on-the-wall status and did not announce ourselves as journalists to the embassy official making the decision. (not hard to do -- she was behind a glassed-in counter, kind of like a bank teller). I don't think she particularly noticed us or knew who we were. It was important for us not to let our presence affect the story we were reporting.

However, their friend Ole-Ronkei had been making many calls to the embassy to try to facilitate things, and I did notice that among the documents he presented were copies of the stories we published about Kakenya last December.

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Washington, D.C. : Amy,
Didn't Kakenya have a Kenyan boyfriend at school elsewhere? Are they still together?

Amy Argetsinger: They are still very close. I'll leave it at that.

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Arlington, Va.: Have you thought about doing a story on a rural American student from a small high school heading to the big city to attend an Ivy League school? For me, the changes were very difficult, especially the gap in income between my family and the typical Ivy League family, and the cost of living. The adjustments were very difficult, even though I was staying within the same country.

Amy Argetsinger: I think that's a great story idea (and actually, the Wall Street Journal did one like that a few years ago, which I highly recommend). One of the gratifying things about this story for me is the number of people who say that Kakenya's experiences, while coming from a place more exotic, reminded them of their parents' or grandparents' experiences coming from another country, or their own experiences coming from small-town America. In hindsight, that's the power of her story -- its resonance for so many of us

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Washington, D.C.: Great article,
To Arlington, Va., asking about developing an internal educational system, Kenya actually has one of best educational systems in Africa (I may be biased here.) and several universities. Admittedly, some U.S. colleges are better (facilities and opportunities wise) than the Kenyan ones, but the Kenyan ones fit the bill for those looking to live and work in Kenya.
One debate a lot of Kenyans had after reading this article was whether or not it was worth it for her to go all that distance when it may have been more suitable/easier on her and her family to go to a local college. The debate may be somewhat similar to those Americans have in choosing out of state private colleges to local state colleges.

Amy Argetsinger: Worth wondering. A lot of the young Kenyans I talked to seemed to feel that a degree from the United States would serve them better in the job market than one from Kenya. I don't know if that's true, but it's certainly a widespread belief.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm an RMWC alum. I was so touched by the stories from beginning to end.

Looking back, would Kakenya have chosen another all-woman's school, or would she have sought out a co-ed school? Would her village let her attend a co-ed school?

Amy Argetsinger: RMWC was the only U.S. college she applied to, only since she happened to have a distant connection there. But I think it turned out to be a very good fit.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Did Kakenya find she was properly prepared scholastically for college? How comparable are Kenyan schools to American schools?

Amy Argetsinger: She had a very hard time! See Part Three of the original series.

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Fort Washington, Md.: I've read about the young graduate and would like to write her a letter. What is her address here in the states?

Amy Argetsinger: Kakenya is out of school now and will have the unfixed address common to many recent college graduates. If you want to send a letter to me I'll be sure she gets it -- The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071.

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Fort Washington, Md.: Congratulations on your series. I too was a foreign student in the U.S. and my neice attends RMWC and knows the subject of your article! I had misgivings about her attending a school that was unknown to me in a town with a history like Lynchburg but she loves it and the experience provided to the girls.

Re the question of higher education in Kenya; I don't think many Americans realize that countries like Kenya DO HAVE UNIVERSITIES but not enough to satify the demand nor the varied offerings available in the U.S.
Thanks for your open-minded approach to the subject.

Amy Argetsinger: thanks for writing!

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Rockville, Md.: This is a fabulous story. Will the Post be following Kakenya on her next phase of education and training in the United States? Please let readers know how we can help her achieve her goals. Thanks.

Amy Argetsinger: We'll see whether Kakenya wants to put up with any more journalists following her around! Thanks so much.

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Arlington, Va.: I have loved reading this series and have anxiously awaited each installment. I read that Kakenya now intends to go to graduate school. Will you chronicle her story through the next few years, as well? Also, would you consider writing on her contributions she has been able to bring to the Masai people as a result of her education?

Amy Argetsinger: I'd love to go back to Enoosaen when Kakenya returns...

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Ashtabula, Ohio: I've enjoyed this series greatly. What are the programs people can donate to and bring over students from Africa?

Amy Argetsinger: I don't know of any particular programs designed to do that (doesn't mean they don't exist). But you could start by encouraging your alma mater to open scholarships to such students -- few colleges provide substantial aid to international students.

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Capitol Hill: Can you please stop writing these stories about Kakenya? I've followed them closely, and after each one, I am reduced to a sobbing mass in tears!

Really, these stories have touched my heart. I wish Kakenya and her mother the best. Is her mother still here? How are they faring financially? I would like to contribute to their stay here. Is there somewhere readers could send a small donation?

Amy Argetsinger: Thanks so much... Many people have written asking how they can support Kakenya's goals back in her village. After the original series, Randolph-Macon Woman's College set up an Enoosaen Fund to help support some of these projects. You can reach the college at (434) 947-8000 or mailing address Randolph-Macon Woman's College, 2500 Rivermont Ave.,
Lynchburg, VA, 24503

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Atlanta, Ga.: I first met Kakenya during her first week of classes when I was on campus fo an address given by a friend. After we met her, my friend turned to me and said, "That was royalty." And she was right. It has been a thrill and great satisfaction as a Randolph-Macon alumna and trustee to watch and come to admire the courage and sense of self-awareness and determination that this young woman has shown. It goes without saying that her sense of humor has endeared her to all who meet her. Thanks you for thius series of articles about one of my college's many thousand outstanding alumnae all over the world.

Alice Ball

Amy Argetsinger: Thank you for writing!

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Falls Church, Va.: Hello, I am a 4th grader and my teacher read part of your article and I thought it was wonderful, especially the food description (new American tastes). What happened to her mom? Did she get to try any of the healthier American foods? Will the mom stay? Will you continue writing about Kakenya's experience?
Thanks, Jordan Ashley S.

Amy Argetsinger: Anna and Noonkuta are currently enjoying a tour of New York City and Washington, D.C., in the company of Kakenya, though they will fly home this weekend. Thanks for your interest -- maybe I will write more about Kakenya!

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Washington, D.C.: Amy, did you get to go on safari? Had you been before?

Amy Argetsinger: Only a day driving around the Maasai Mara park (about two hours from Enoosaen) but it was wonderful.

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Cambridge, Mass.: What a beautiful story. Thank you so much! It brought back memories from my high school days in a small midwestern boarding school 40 years ago. My roommate made the same journey as Kakenya did. She traveled alone from a small Kenyan village to America when she was 14!
Many a night at school, I'd go to sleep after listening for hours to stories from her childhood in Kenya. There were times she ached with homesickness and yet she knew there was no going back. Home would always be a memory.

Amy Argetsinger: Thanks so much for writing.

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Houston, Tex.: What impressed you most about Randolph-Macon Woman's College?

Amy Argetsinger: Small classes, very passionate teachers. And it's a lovely campus.

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Sterling, Va.: Just wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed reading the series. I wish this young lady and her family all the best. Sometimes I think that efforts like this on the part of small institutions and individuals do more to promote intercultural understanding and friendship than do huge "official" programs. Your articles have been so inspiring -- are they available in a format that would be easier to keep?

Amy Argetsinger: The web is the best we have right now... Thanks so much!

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Lynchburg, Va.: Actually, R-MWC has established a fund which will be used to help other young women from Kakenya's village come to R-MWC. Additional information can be obtained by contacting the R-MWC Development Office at 2500 Rivermont Avenue, Lynchburg, Va. 24503.

Amy Argetsinger: thanks

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Washington, D.C.: I was so excited to see anohter article about Kekenya in the paper today -- I love the series! Have you considered expanding it into a book? I suppose it would be a lot to ask of Kekenya, but it's such an incredible story. Thanks for writing it.

Amy Argetsinger: maybe...

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Amy Argetsinger: Thanks so much for your questions! I've really enjoyed it.

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