Kakenya Ntaiya

Kenya

Life for Kakenya Ntaiya was supposed to follow the traditional path. Engaged at age 5, she was too be circumcised by the time she was a teenager—an event that would mark the end of her education and the beginning of her preparations for marriage.

But Kakenya had a different plan. First, she negotiated with her father: she would be circumcised only if she could also finish high school. He agreed. Then she negotiated with the village elders to do what no girl had ever done: leave her Maasai village of Enoosaen in south Kenya to go to college in the United States. She promised that she would use her education to benefit Enoosaen. The entire village collected money to pay for her journey.

Kakenya received a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia. The girl who grew up without electricity wrote papers on international relations and political science on the computers in the university library. She is currently at the University of Pittsburgh, where she expects to receive a doctorate in education in May 2009. After completing her undergraduate studies, she became the first youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund. Today, she travels around the world as a passionate advocate for girls’ education, which she sees as a crucial tool for fighting the practices of female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Kakenya is close to achieving another dream: establishing a boarding school for girls back home. It is just one of the many ways she intends to give back to the village that sent her out into the world.

“If the women of my homeland had access to education, they could choose what to do with their lives,” she says. “And that would be a real change, and I would feel I had paid my debts.”