Anna Ntaiya stumbled on the moonlit road as she raced for the late-night bus to Nairobi.
She already was 20 miles from Enoosaen, her village in western Kenya with no running water or paved roads, a place where cattle outnumbered people and electricity did not arrive until the 21st century. There, she always stepped surely, in the viscous muck of her barnyard or on the rocky path to the market -- even in the dark and the rain, in sandals or barefooted.
But at the bus stop in Kilgoris, the town where the paved road begins, she was wearing a kind of shoe she had never worn before. Dark shoes, with a strap and a buckle and a hint of a heel. Shoes she had been given for her journey. Shoes she could wear in the United States.
And so she struggled to gain her balance and climbed aboard. Torrents of rain had fallen all week across Kenya, and the bus convulsed every few seconds as it hit another pock on the 300 miles of highway to the capital. Ntaiya would sleep little that night. She expected to sleep less the next one, on the flights from Nairobi to London to Washington. This was the path her eldest child had traveled more than four years earlier in pursuit of a degree from an American university, an ambition their neighbors had once mocked as folly. Now it was Ntaiya's duty to travel the path as well.
This month, more than a million students will graduate from colleges across the United States, and for most who embrace the ritual of cap and gown, a parent or two will travel to witness it. Usually it requires a couple hours on the move -- from Arlington to Charlottesville by car, perhaps, or from Dallas to Boston by air -- and a dent in the checkbook, all made worthwhile for the chance to bask in the glow of a child's accomplishment.
For 43-year-old Anna Ntaiya, the trip to her daughter Kakenya's graduation from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., would require months of deliberation and weeks of preparation and prayer. She would have to leave her struggling farm and her six children still at home for more than two weeks. And she would endure 60 hours of nearly nonstop travel from Enoosaen into what would seem like a different century altogether -- from a culture where no one owns a refrigerator or a television to one where everyone seemed to have a cell phone and a car.
Ntaiya, a dryly pragmatic woman, said she was going to the United States for three reasons: to see the daughter she had born at 17, to witness an educational triumph that far eclipsed anything ever achieved by a woman from Enoosaen, and to personally thank the many Americans who had made it possible.
"I have a lot of work to do," she said.
Like the buckled dress shoes, the trip had been a gift. Never could she have afforded it on her own, the $1,300 round-trip plane ticket alone costing more than what her cows and cornfields might gross in a good year. And this had not been a good year. There had been the drought that shrank her crops, the floods that washed away an entire acre of maize, the hyenas that devoured one of her cows and its newborn calf.
Some Americans had decided to sponsor Ntaiya's trip to Lynchburg -- people whose names she did not even know, supporters of Kakenya's college who had heard the story of the young Masai woman who was the first girl from her rural community to seek a university degree. And so the suitcase trembling on the bus rack above her seat was stuffed with tributes to the sponsors' generosity: a bracelet hand-beaded in the pattern of the Kenyan flag, a horsetail switch used in tribal ceremonies to administer blessings, a long skirt embroidered with medallions and tiny beads, gifts she intended to deliver as thanks.
For the college president who had given Kakenya a scholarship, Ntaiya packed a bracelet on which one of her sisters-in-law had beaded the woman's name. There was also a four-kilo bag of millet in her suitcase as a favor to a friend whose sister in Delaware was pining for such stuff.
But most essential was the dress for Kakenya. Red, close-fitting with a beaded neckline, it was the height of Masai elegance, and Ntaiya hoped her daughter could wear it at the graduation ceremony. It had taken her a week to sew.
"Is Kakenya huge?" Ntaiya asked in the English she had been practicing. Kakenya hadn't been home in 21/2 years. There was no post office in Enoosaen, so their letters took months to arrive, and there were no phone lines to enable them to talk, so there were many things she just couldn't know about her daughter anymore.
"I just imagined the size," Ntaiya said. "I don't know if I will still remember her. I just imagined."
The bus was speeding now down the ragged highway, trying to make up for a four-hour delay. Now and then it would stop in a featureless dark town and rowdy young men would board, their bags clogging the narrow aisle and their laughter roiling the night.
But she had a companion. The male elders of Enoosaen had selected one for her after the sponsors agreed to pay for a second ticket. Noonkuta Nangeya, a handsome woman with honey-colored eyes and a pair of beaded cuffs in each of her stretched earlobes, was married to a half brother of Ntaiya's late husband. While Ntaiya was fluent in Swahili and capable in English, Nangeya spoke only Maa, the language unique to the Masai. At 48, she had never traveled more than 20 miles from Enoosaen or left her seven children, the youngest of whom was 2, for more than a day. Now here she was in the seat next to Ntaiya, heading to the United States.
"It's a difficult thing," Nangeya acknowledged through a translator. "I know I'm going, but what to expect?"
In the eyes of their community, the journey was an epic event. A week earlier, Ntaiya spent the night with her fellow church members on top of a mountain, fasting and praying for her safety. A couple of days later, the congregation returned to her home and prayed and sang and blessed both women again. And the day before the pair climbed on the bus, more than 60 neighbors showed up at Ntaiya's three-room mud-walled house to wish them well. They each received a plate of hot food and lingered for hours chatting in Ntaiya's front yard, the goats and the chickens squabbling for table scraps around them.
What to make of such an adventure? Some harbored concerns. "We are mixed up" about her journey, confided her pastor, the Rev. John Sancha. "The plane, you know."
He wondered how long such flights take. What is the noise like? He had heard that planes sometimes pitch and bounce, like a boat at sea. Would they see the rain?
Ntaiya's oldest son, 18-year-old Benard, said his mother was perhaps a little fearful but mostly excited about her trip.
"Maybe she will like it there," he speculated. "She will want to stay."
Impossible, declared Ntaiya. "I have my children," she said. There was 4-year-old Nashipai and 8-year-old Seenoi, still impish little girls, and quiet 13-year-old mother's-helper Noomali, and lanky 16-year-old Daniel, still at home and in school like Benard. And there was the unexpected joy brought to her this year by 3-month-old Leshoo, the son that vivacious 21-year-old Naserian had by a boyfriend Ntaiya disapproved of and refused to let her marry.
But neither would she acknowledge any fears about leaving them for two weeks. God, she asserted again and again, would protect her.
She had shown no fear when the crowded pickup truck in which she and Nangeya had begun an earlier errand to Nairobi drove through the rain-swollen river that flooded the road out of Enoosaen. And she had remained cool when they approached the counter at the U.S. Embassy to ask for a visa, hardly guaranteed, to enter that distant country. Like many tribal people, they lacked the bank statements and land titles that could prove their intent to return.
It was only after the moment of triumph that day -- when a kindly embassy staffer believed their story and granted them visas -- that an atypical emotion drifted across Ntaiya's face. A photographer who was chronicling her journey tried to banter with her: So, you're going to the U.S., you're going to see your daughter. Are you excited?
Ntaiya skipped past his question and focused on the one that gnawed at her.
"Will you be with us?" she asked him. "All the way?"
Yes, he told her.
"So we will not get lost?"
"That," she said quietly, "will make me very happy."
Twelve hours after the bus deposited them in downtown Nairobi, she and Nangeya entered Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a low-slung building of narrow corridors and scuffed tile floors.
They surrendered their bags to a woman behind a counter and then passed through a gantlet of police officers. They were carried up a moving staircase and through another cluster of guards and gates.
There, Ntaiya and Nangeya stared at big glass windows reflecting a celestial expanse of ceiling lights and peered out to the white bulk of a wide-bodied British Airways jet with an ant farm of mysterious activity around it.
That was their plane? It was so big! How would they get up to it?
Where had their bags gone?
Could they ever find their way out of this place if they had to?
Ntaiya's eyes grew wide.
"Already," she said, "I feel like I'm in another country."
Dazed and Dazzled
The woman with the cart pushed her way up the aisle to their seats and handed them each a tray crowded with hot dishes wrapped in plastic and aluminum.
"Chicken pasta," she announced.
It was their first test.
Ntaiya had spent weeks wondering about what she would find in America. "In the U.S. we are told it is ever clean," she had said one afternoon in her house, the chicks popping around underfoot in search of crumbs on the hard dirt floor. Kakenya had told her so: "There is no mud in America."
In America, she knew, there would be bathrooms, where people went to wash themselves instead of in the river. There would be electricity, and things like elevators and escalators. She had had opportunity to practice with all of those things during their visa trip when Morompi Ole-Ronkei, an Enoosaen native now living in Nairobi, took them through an orientation session at a shopping mall there.
Nothing, though, had caused as much anxiety as the issue of food. At home, Ntaiya's diet varied little from day to day -- rice, beans, bananas, eggs, boiled kale, the dry cornmeal porridge known as ugali and the oily pancakes known as chapati. Occasionally there would be a pineapple or oranges, bought in Kilgoris, and beef or chicken, cooked in its own juices. Would she find these things in America? She doubted it.
"Kakenya says the food is not good," she said one evening over dinner. "Kakenya says there are many things that are very bad." Such as fish. And pork. And the uncooked leafy goat food that everyone called salad.
But Ole-Ronkei talked with them. He had spent many years in the United States, had learned how to pretend to eat salad so as not to offend his hosts, and he made two arguments to them about food: First, they wouldn't know it was bad until they tasted it, and second, how would they be able to answer all the questions about the food from their friends back in Enoosaen unless they tried it?
They had agreed with him. So now on the plane, Ntaiya dutifully took a bite from each of the little dishes put in front of her. The chicken was flavorless in a tangy sauce that also drenched some thick, doughy tubes, the stuff they called pasta. It was not good. The woman came back around with tea, a staple of their meals back home. But the milk for their tea came in small enigmatic packets.
"What kind of milk?" Ntaiya asked suspiciously after tasting it. A kind of cream, she was told.
She shook her head. "From what animal?"
After the plane bumped to a stop on the ground at London's Heathrow Airport, the women walked past shining bottles of perfume and liquor, past cases of diamonds, past a gleaming sports car and racks of glossy magazines. They lingered in the Liberty of London boutique, gazing at the long scarves and silky neckties and array of immaculately ruffled and floral-printed baby clothes. "So if someone is traveling with their child," Ntaiya observed quietly.
"Everything," she said later, "is here."
The woman walked from the plane in American shoes, but it was clear from her clothes that she was not from this country. She wore a polka-dotted shawl over a long, orange wrap and at least 20 brightly beaded necklaces. They were the formal clothes of the Masai, the kind of clothes that women from her home wore for business, or ceremonies, or reunions.
She had been traveling for days, and her steps were slow under the weight of her suitcase, but they were steady. Her skin was a clear dark coffee, and her cheekbones had an aristocratic tilt.
She walked toward a set of double doors at Dulles International Airport, and on the other side a young college woman darted her eyes to the clocks overhead and craned her neck to try to catch a glimpse beyond. She was wearing jeans and a white logo T-shirt from her stint as a camp counselor. Her skin was a clear dark coffee, and her cheekbones had an aristocratic tilt.
And now the doors swung open for Anna Ntaiya, and she turned left around a pillar, and suddenly there was Kakenya, swooping onto her mother in a collapsing kind of hug.
Kakenya was talking in Maa for the first time in ages, and she was crying so hard she could barely talk and wiping away tears. And so it was her mother who finally found the words for both of them, and delivered them in English.
"Very happy," said Ntaiya.
Over the next week, Kakenya introduced her mother to her world, and Ntaiya found many things to ponder.
Like the stunning variety of dishes and beads at Wal-Mart, and the mysteriously lighter color of the Virginia soil. And the way that the sun sat differently in the sky than it did over her home near the equator, and the way that American women walked around with their legs and shoulders bare. And the softness of the wall-to-wall carpet -- someone could sleep all night on it! -- and the ridiculous number of steps (faucet, soap dispenser, paper dispenser, trash) that go into washing one's hands.
She found Kakenya's campus very impressive -- as clean as she had expected and even more beautiful, with dense gardens and sun-kissed hills and century-old buildings that looked as solid as new ones. "If man could make this so beautiful," she mused, how much more beautiful could heaven be?
But by Sunday, the morning of graduation, the heavens above campus were gray and damp, and it was decided to move the ceremony inside. For Kakenya, weakened by a lack of sleep and frustrated in a scramble for shoes and seats, it was the ultimate blow.
"I'm not excited about my graduation," she announced to her mother as the crowd moved toward the auditorium. She was near tears now.
"I want to go home!"
But a homecoming would remain beyond the horizon. First there would be a job in the United States and a graduate degree or two, she had determined. In another week, her mother would get on a plane to return to Enoosaen. Without her.
Ntaiya was ready. Of course her daughter wouldn't be bringing this degree back to their tiny village, she said. "There are no offices" in Enoosaen. Kakenya would be out in the world from now on, she predicted, "bringing good things" to their home town -- but belonging elsewhere.
"She's a big girl now," Ntaiya said, beaming triumphantly. "I cannot tell her what to do."
As a brass quintet struck up "Pomp and Circumstance," two lines came shuffling into the auditorium. Students on the right, with black robes over sundresses or slacks. And by their side, the person each had chosen to accompany her. Mothers in church dresses. Brothers in shirtsleeves. Fathers with a camera bag on the shoulder.
And midway through the lines, two Masai women, both of them smiling. One with an intricate headdress and pink and purple skirts that jingled with every step. The other in the traditional black robe -- but under the robe, a long red Masai dress, with a pattern of beads on the body and delicate filigree at the neck.
Her mother had made it. And Kakenya said it fit her well.