April 16, 2012 | Education

Woman of the Week: Kakenya Ntaiya

When Kakenya Ntaiya left her Kenyan village, she promised to return and build a school. She delivered.

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY -- It was a bargain no woman should have to strike: to be permitted to finish high school, Kakenya Ntaiya agreed to undergo female genital mutilation at her father’s insistence.

In Enoosaen, the Kenyan village where Kakenya was raised, marriage was predicated on being “circumcised.” She had been promised to another villager when she was five; high school was no one’s priority but her own. According to National Geographic, even today, only 11% of girls in her district pursue education beyond primary school.

Kakenya held up her end of the bargain, missing school for two weeks on account of the pain. As soon as she healed, she made her way to Sosio Secondary school, where she blossomed. She studied like crazy, winning a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1998. Men from her tribe, the Masai, had left before. Some had gone to other African cities, others to America, or the United Kingdom. Few came back. Women – women were different. They married. They stayed.

Kakenya left.

She left with the support and backing of her village, who held a fundraiser for her to travel to America. Dime by dime, bringing pumpkins and goats for sale, they gathered the $3,000 she needed for the plane ticket. In return, she promised to come back, and bring with her things her community needed most: a school, a hospital, infrastructure. Paved roads, electricity. She promised.

Ten years, a doctorate and a marriage later, she delivered. In 2009, she opened Kakenya Center for Excellence, the first primary school for girls in Enoosaen. Since it opened, over a hundred and twenty girls have enrolled. They study English, Swahili, math, science, geography and history, religion, the arts and physical education. The school will also focus on leadership, and is developing a curriculum that empowers the girls to resist community pressures and stand up for their principles. At the same time, students learn the different skills so important to life in the villages, such as agriculture and animal husbandry. In this way, even as their horizons expand, they maintain their connection to their families and their communities.

Kakenya’s dreams for the 100 million girls who, over the next decade, will marry as child brides are as big as the ones she harbored for herself.

“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.”

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.