May 23, 2012 | Education, Violence Against Women
A Promise Kept: How Higher Education Forged a Global Leader
Dr. Kakenya Ntailya visited the Eagleton Institute on April 18th as part of the Women in the World Speaker Series, a new initiative that brings women leaders to three U.S. college campuses -- Rutgers, Barnard College and Harvard University – to inspire young women to become leaders and agents of international social change.
By Laura Federico, Director of Communications at Douglass Residential College
“Young people have so much knowledge and creativity. The moment you step out there, there you are, ready to run,” she said. “I say do it, just do it – don’t wait.”
Like all inspirational messages, hers is backed up by action: she has done what she urges others to do. In fact, she says, “If you have reached where I [am], don’t wait for me – go one step ahead.”
She is Kakeny Ntaiya – recently, Dr. Kakeny Ntaiya. A scholar, mother of two, wife and native of Kenya, Dr. Ntaiya visited Rutgers this month as part of the newly-launched national Women in the World Speaker Series, a project of the Women in the World Foundation. Like all of the women selected to participate in the series, Dr. Ntaiya is doing work that’s critically important, that is ground-breaking, and that affects many people.
But at the interview-format lecture presented on April 18th at the Eagleton Institute, it was clear that this pleasant woman, with her frequent smiles and gentle voice, is more warrior than speaker, more activist than theorist. At 33, she has not only earned the highest academic degree in a country whose language she learned as an adult, but she has taken her knowledge and put it to concrete use, founding the first-ever school for girls in the Trans Mara district of Kenya in 2009.
Not surprisingly, this is the same district where Dr. Ntaiya’s own story began.
The First Promise
“I was the first [child] of eight,” she recounted at the inquiry of Louise Roug, interviewer for the Women of the World Speaker Series and an editor at The Daily Beast. “My father was a policeman who lived in the city and came home [to our village] one time a year – once not for two years.” But during these visits, she said, by cultural custom he was entitled to “beat my mother, demand food from her, sell whatever we owned, because everything in that home belongs to him.”
To the young girl, understanding that her home life was normal -- “every woman [in our village] was going through the same” – didn’t blind her to its injustice. “So much is expected of girls! As soon as they can walk, they must go get water, carry it back, sweep the house, cook, and do all of the chores women do. As for boys, they take care of the cows: that’s it. And when they grow up, not much else,” she said, to a burst of spontaneous laughter from the fifty or so audience members.
Even today in Kenya, the unequal division of labor is not the worst of the injustices borne by women in this region of the world. One still occurs “regularly – though it’s illegal now, and practiced at night”: female circumcision, a rite performed on girls around the time they enter puberty. Though shrouded in secrecy through girls’ childhood, it is performed before witnesses when it occurs; performed also without anesthesia, leaving girls permanently maimed but, in the view of societies that still practice it, “ready for marriage.”
Young Kakenya, betrothed to a village boy while still a toddler, knew it was inevitable that she would have to go through the procedure lest she “cast a great stigma upon my father,” as she termed it. But she used what she knew of her cultural norms to bargain with her father: she would be circumcised only if she were allowed to complete high school. Because girls who don’t undergo this ritual are considered unmarriageable, he agreed.
“[Circumcision] is a celebration,” Dr. Ntaiya explains quietly. “It used to be [accompanied by] a whole week of celebration … Right afterward a girl is supposed to be married.”
She kept her promise to her father. But nowadays, educating the public about this dangerous and brutal practice is key to Dr. Ntaiya’s mission.
Other aspects of her mission, however, are purely academic. “In [native Kenyan] schools, girls are ignored because [educating a girl is considered] a waste since she’ll be married anyway” – social, or both: “A woman can’t look in anyone’s eyes. She must always keep her head low, like this – especially in the company of a man -- even her own husband.”
So along with eight academic subjects – English, Swahili, math, science, geography/history, religion, the arts, and physical education – Dr. Ntaiya includes sexual and reproductive health information in her school’s curriculum, as well as traditional culture classes that seek to enhance her students’ self-esteem as valuable citizens and productive members of their families.
In addition, last year the school also began offering what Dr. Ntaiya calls “summer camp”: leadership workshops that are open not only to students of her school but to local girls in the Trans Mara region who are not been fortunate enough to be in school.
Of course, such coursework -- unheard of in Kenya till today -- was available to Dr. Ntaiya herself as a child. Although she viewed education as “an escape from a life like my mother’s,” to her knowledge, no other girl had ever escaped in this way before. In fact, few boys had – so she recalls, “I had to be clever.”
The Second Promise
When young Kakenya was a teenager, her father fell ill. Local custom then imposed fatherhood upon all of the men in the village, and so it was that the sistenn-year-old had to ask each and every one of them for permission to postpone marriage once again and continue her studies beyond high school.
“In our culture we believe that good news comes with the dawn, and that if you are asked a favor at dawn, you must not refuse,” she explained. It took her two months to make the rounds -- of 16 “fathers” in all! – but her patience paid off: all said yes.
In fact, so much acquiescence resulted in support for her plan throughout her village, which managed to raise the money she needed to attend a university overseas.
In exchange, she said, “I had to promise to return from the ‘land of plenty’ and help [my community] solve their problems.”
She began studying for her bachelor’s degree at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where her first impressions were how cold the weather was and how much food the students had to eat (“And yet they complained!”). Afterward she went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Ph.D in 2011.
“My whole world literally opened up,” she says of her education. “Everything was new – how to use a bathroom, the English language, the time change, jet lag, everything.” But, she says, “I had so much support. I adapted very fast, and soon had many friends.”
She graduated with a degree in International Studies and Political Science in May of 2004.
She could have stayed in the U.S., of course — the opportunities offered to her were abundant. For instance, as the first Youth Advisor to the United Nations Population Fund, a career in international assistance was a very viable option; another was journalism or public speaking. In the past decade, Dr. Kakenya Nataya has been the recipient of many prestigious honors including a Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, a National Geographic Young Explorer nomination and the subject of both a BBC documentary and a Washington Post series.
But in the end, Dr. Ntaiya chose to go back to her native Africa – in fact, to the very place where her story began.
Now married (to a man of her own choosing, who also was educated overseas) and the mother of two children, Dr. Ntailya continues to develop the region’s first and only primary girls’ school in her home village, Enoosaen, while accepting invitations to speak in the U.S. and elsewhere on the topics of women’s education, female circumcision, and human rights.
“I had to go back,” she explains. “It’s beyond the promise [I made when I left home]. I can’t sleep knowing another girl is being mutilated, another is being married, another is lacking information.”
Instead, her life’s work now is “to prepare girls to compete [with boys] … They have dreams, hopes. We open their eyes and their minds.”
Her advice to others is simple: act.
“If you have that thing that is pressing on you – and we all have it – just do what you are thinking of doing,” she says. “Don’t wait. I knew if I waited [to open my school] until I had my Ph.D., every year I was waiting, girls were getting married, were getting mutilated; their hopes were getting destroyed. So I say do it, just do it. Don’t wait.”
And to those who, though marveling at her courageous example, still quail at the thought of taking action, she is still the maker – and the keeper – of promises:
“If you do that thing you feel you must do, don’t be afraid, because you will find friends,” she says. “There is no road you will walk alone.”
From the website of the Kakenya Center for Excellence:
Education for girls in my culture is not a priority. Most families consider a daughter’s education to be unnecessary and a poor investment. For those lucky enough to finish primary education, only a handful of girls ever make it to secondary school. Instead they are wed, young and uneducated, as
100 million young girls are expected to marry in the next decade. These girls are crying out, but their voices are not being heard. I can see their faces, full of sorrow, sadness and despair. They have no hope and no rights.
But I see a brighter future for them. I see smiling faces, full of energy and passion, ready to change the world for better. I see them empowered and with proper education. I see them as senior executives in big companies, owning their own businesses, heading government ministries, and championing rights for humanity.
It is my dream to bring them a future of hope. Since 2008, I have been working to build a girls' school in Enoosaen so that other young African girls might travel the same path I did to education, self-realization and leadership. This is my dream.