The Kindness of Kakenya
By Marcy Driehaus
Imagine: You’re a young Maasai girl barely teetering on the brink of adulthood. Though you have your whole life ahead of you, you are not in control of your own future. At your tender age, your destiny to be a wife and mother becomes a harsh reality once you’re forcibly married off and expected to have children all before you’re 15 years old. Prior to this already outlandish cycle, you’re forced to undergo a popular barbaric “rite of passage” as a girl that’s commonplace in your culture. This dehumanizing and torturous event, known as female genital mutilation (female circumcision), is said to signify the end of a girl’s academic journey and the beginning of her new life as a compliant wife. In light of these horrific customs, one Maasai girl decided that she was going to take a different path. This young warrior grew up to be someone who has changed and will continue to change the lives of many. Her name is Kakenya Ntaiya, and she is living proof that you are control of your own life.
Kakenya Ntaiya was born as the first of eight children in 1978 in Western Kenya. Being a part of the Maasai tribe, Ntaiya’s childhood was dictated by peculiar customs and traditions. Rather than being carefree and blissfully innocent like most children her age, Ntaiya, like many other young girls in the Maasai tribe, was already engaged at the age of five and to be married by the time she was 14 years old. In addition to this obscene obligation that was out of her control, Ntaiya also grew up so quickly due to the amount of responsibility she had at such a young age. Between helping her mother give birth in their hut and acting as a caretaker for her younger siblings, Ntaiya had always had adult like burdens thrust upon her even despite how young she was. Even in the face of her many hardships, one thing that was a driving force in Ntaiya’s life was her education. She valued her education above all else, and this passion is what drove her to venture off of the road that had already been paved for her.
When it came time for Ntaiya to be circumcised thus putting an end to her schooling, she decided to bargain with her father in an attempt to separate herself from the unhealthy stream of events that would customarily determine her future. Ntaiya made a deal with her father that she would undergo the barbarous genital mutilation under the condition that she was allowed to continue on in with her studies and was not forced to marry. After the deal was finalized, Ntaiya’s plan was executed perfectly and it came time for her life to truly begin.
After successfully finishing high school, Ntaiya was desperate to attend college in the U.S. Though this longing seemed out of reach at first, the strength of her community proved to be a vital factor in achieving this dream. Upon catching wind of Ntaiya’s goal, the Maasai women banded together and raised enough money to send her to the U.S. to further her education. With this outpouring of love and financial support, Ntaiya became the first woman in her village to attend college.
After earning a BA in political science and international studies from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Ntaiya went on to receive a PhD in education from the University of Pittsburgh. Though Ntaiya’s school days were over after that, it was only the beginning of her journey in the world of education. Taking the knowledge she had gained from her academic career in the U.S., she was determined to expose young Kenyan girls to the same opportunities that she had experienced. With this idea in mind and along with the determination necessary to achieve her goal, The Kakenya Center for Excellence was born.
The Kakenya Center for Excellence opened in 2009 and initially began with 32 students. This center serves as an educational institution, but its services are not limited to exclusively academic subjects. The center’s status change from a standard day school to a boarding school allows the girls who are enrolled to consider it a safe haven or second home. Rather than putting the girls in harm’s way and subjecting them to be victims of sexual assault on their walks to or from school, Ntaiya decided to take all necessary precautions in order to ensure the utmost safety and comfort for everyone. The primary goal of this center, as said in its mission statement, is to, “Empower and motivate young girls through education to become agents of change and to break the cycle of destructive cultural practices in Kenya”. With the center’s positive message and the hope it provides that there is a chance at a brighter future, Ntaiya’s efforts have proven to have impacted many.
Kakenya Ntaiya has served as an inspiration to women everywhere. She has rightfully been addressed as one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World” and has been included in “the Women Deliver 100: The Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women”. In addition, she has also been honored with a Vital Voices Global Leadership award and named a CNN hero in 2013. These accolades speak volumes about what an impactful and influential figure that Ntaiya is.
Despite having all odds against her, Ntaiya still managed to make headway in terms of breaking the calamitous Maasai cycle even though it wasn’t always easy. Though she admits that, “It’s still quite challenging to push for change. Men are in charge of everything, but nothing good comes on a silver plate. You have to fight hard”, Ntaiya still exemplifies the fact that one has the power to determine one’s own fate and take charge. You, like Kakenya Ntaiya, are in charge of your own future- so go out and show the world what you can do!