Unfortunately, the Maasai society does not seem to believe that women don’t forget; if they did, they would not subject girls to female genital mutilation. Kakenya was not spared. But rather than run away and let her father live with the shame of having a daughter who refused to take part in their community’s rite of passage, she endured the dreadful ceremony in the name of education.
Female genital mutilation is practiced in many societies [especially in Africa] to supposedly spare women from falling into adulterous temptation. Yet, they believe that women never forget.
Losing her clitoris is just one of the sacrifices a passionate woman like Kakenya was ready to make. She braved leaving her country, and her beloved parents and siblings, when the opportunity came to get a college degree in the United States. After convincing 16 tribe leaders to allow her to go, Kakenya was finally sent to “the land of plenty.”
Away from home and in a strange land, Kakenya was able to acclimatize and even made some friends right away; her wit and imminent determination to succeed attracted others. With the help of several jobs, she eventually completed a Bachelor’s degree. That itself was already an incredible achievement, but that was not all for which she left her family. She had something grander in mind: a school for girls.
The Maasai leaders frowned at the idea, thinking it was a waste of resources. But a success story was standing right in front of them. Kakenya herself became a testimony that girls can be assets to the community and not just in the household. Given the opportunity, women can make a difference.
“The Kakenya Center for Excellence” is home to about 150 girls who are trained to speak out and be more confident. They are provided with lodging to spare them from having to walk for hours and being vulnerable to human and animal predators along the way. Kakenya hopes to change more lives by partnering with both leaders and parents to give girls access to quality education; she hopes, one day, to live in a society where women are regarded equal to men. That, of course, is not far from happening.
For the girls they reared in the Center, they are positive that the knowledge given to them will be put to good use. And, because women don’t forget, Kakenya knows that what she is doing will have a lasting impact on the community.
Kakenya Ntaiya was the firstborn of James and Anna Ntaiya of Enoosaen, Kenya, and after her came seven more siblings. Although Anna can no longer remember the exact day she gave birth to her first baby, she was sure it was in 1978. James, a policeman, was often away from home as he was deployed away from his wife and kids.
Kakenya had to help her mom plow the fields, tend their livestock and take care of her siblings. Anna was certainly a strong woman; she had eight kids to feed, so she needed to make sure they had enough to eat when the money James sent to her did not make ends meet. She grew crops and kept animals, only to be squandered by James whenever he came home for drinking sprees with friends. If Anna questioned him, he beat her. In the Maasai custom, women are not entitled to own anything.
Kakenya was five years old when she was engaged to a six-year-old neighbor whose family was poorer than them. Since women were not regarded as equal to men, educating them did not seem necessary. Girls are often given away to marriage before they even begin high school. They are also aware of a certain rite of passage ceremony which takes place before a girl gets married; but no one knew what exactly happens after a woman is subjected to it, as they are told not to talk about it with anyone.
As Kakenya grew and developed a mind of her own, she became interested in teaching. She admired her teachers for being knowledgeable and having what she considered a glorifying job. This observation led her to dream about becoming a teacher someday; but, without education, she wouldn’t be able to realize her vision. So, she haggled with her father, telling him she would not run away from her impending marriage if he allowed her to continue school.
Between being embarrassed for life and striking a deal with his daughter, James chose the lesser evil. Kakenya and her mother did their best to postpone her rite of passage, but James soon had enough of their delaying tactics and insisted they proceed. Kakenya was 13 years old then, entirely unaware of what awaited her.
It was a week-long party. Kakenya remembers dancing, eating and just having a good time. On the last day of the ceremony, Kakenya was finally marked ready for marriage:
"The actual day came, and we walked out of the house that we were dancing in. Yes, we danced and danced. We walked out to the courtyard, and there were a bunch of people waiting. They were all in a circle. And as we danced and danced, and we approached this circle of women, men, women, children, everybody was there. There was a woman sitting in the middle of it, and this woman was waiting to hold us. I was the first. There were my sisters and a couple of other girls, and as I approached her, she looked at me, and I sat down. And I sat down, and I opened my legs. As I opened my leg, another woman came, and this woman was carrying a knife. And as she carried the knife, she walked toward me and she held the clitoris, and she cut it off." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
Education in the United States
Kakenya charged it all to experience. She would soon meet a Kenyan man who was a scholar at a university in the United States; the way he dressed and how happy he seemed intrigued the young Kakenya. She asked him what he did to look so different. He happened to know a Dean in the United States, and pulled some strings to get Kakenya a scholarship at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Viriginia. Convincing her leaders, however, was not easy:
"... I couldn't come without the support of the village, because I needed to raise money to buy the air ticket. I got a scholarship but I needed to get myself here. But I needed the support of the village, and here again, when the men heard, and the people heard that a woman had gotten an opportunity to go to school, they said, "What a lost opportunity. This should have been given to a boy. We can't do this."
So I went back and I had to go back to the tradition. There's a belief among our people that morning brings good news. So I had to come up with something to do with the morning, because there's good news in the morning. And in the village also, there is one chief, an elder, who if he says yes, everybody will follow him. So I went to him very early in the morning, as the sun rose. The first thing he sees when he opens his door is, it's me.
"My child, what are you doing here?"
"Well, Dad, I need help. Can you support me to go to America?" I promised him that I would be the best girl, I will come back, anything they wanted after that, I will do it for them.
He said, "Well, but I can't do it alone." He gave me a list of another 15 men that I went -- 16 more men -- every single morning I went and visited them. They all came together. The village, the women, the men, everybody came together to support me to come to get an education." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
It was during her time in the U.S. when the learned that the rite of passage practiced in Kenya was called “female genital mutilation,” or FGM. She was told that marrying-off girls before they reach legal age is called “child marriage” and against the law. FGM itself was also illegal, even in Kenya:
"I learned that it was against the law in Kenya. I learned that I did not have to trade part of my body to get an education. I had a right. And as we speak right now, three million girls in Africa are at risk of going through this mutilation. I learned that my mom had a right to own property. I learned that she did not have to be abused because she is a woman. Those things made me angry. I wanted to do something. As I went back, every time I went, I found that my neighbors' girls were getting married." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
She joined the United Nations after completing her undergraduate studies, and went on to secure a Doctorate degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
Founding “The Kakenya Center for Excellence”
Kakenya made good on her promise and came back to Enoosaen an educated woman. She expressed her desire to build a girls’ school, of which the elders did not initially approve. But she did not endure university life away from home for nothing; she kept convincing them until they gave in. They eventually donated land and cooperated with Kakenya in founding the first all-girls’ school in her community.
The 25,000-dollar prize money she received from Vital Voices for winning the “Global Leadership Award” in 2008 helped make her vision a reality. Now, her Center houses around 150 girls, sparing them from having to walk miles just to attend school. Having a comfortable place to sleep and nutritious food has also enabled them to concentrate better in school. For girls to be admitted, their parents simply sign a contract wherein they swear against forcing their daughter/s to undergo FGM or giving them away to marriage after their stint at the Center.
Since then, Kakenya has successfully converted leaders to believing that women can be a source of pride; some fathers even claim that their daughters in the Center can easily outdo their sons. But this is just the beginning, and Kakenya is looking forward to changing her nation, one educated girl at a time.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- The Kakenya Center for Excellence
- National Geographic
Awards and Achievements
- 2008: Honored with a “Vital Voices Global Leadership Award”
- 2009: Founded “The Kakenya Center for Excellence”
- 2010: Honored as a “National Geographic Emerging Explorer”
- 2011: Named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women who Shake the World”
- 2011: Completed her Doctorate in Education at the University of Pittsburgh
- 2012: Featured speaker at TEDx Midatlantic Conference
- 2013: Honored as a “CNN Hero”
- 2013: Honored with the “Global Women’s Right Award” from the Feminist Majority Foundation
- Counted among the “Women Deliver 100: The Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women”
- Received the “Sheth International Young Alumni Achievement Award”
- Served as the first youth advisor to the “United Nations Population Fund”
- Named by Women in the World as a “Woman of Impact"
TED Talks (Kakenya Ntaiya: A girl who demanded school)
TED Speakers (Kakenya Ntaiya: Educator and activist)
CNN (Woman challenges tradition, brings change to her Kenyan village)
TED Blog (Meet Kakenya Ntaiya, who worked with her elders to found a school for girls in her Maasai village)
Kakenya's Dream (Mission)
Kakenya's Dream (Kakenya’s Story)
National Geographic (Kakenya Ntaiya)
The Huffington Post (Saving Girls: Kakenya Ntaiya Is a CNN Hero)
Women Deliver (Kakenya Ntaiya, Kenya)
The Washington Post (Kakenya's Promise: A Girl Will Never Forget)