Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Born to a better day: One woman's journey from a Kenyan village to a Pitt doctorate
Kakenya Ntaiya's path from a dusty Maasai village in Kenya to a Ph.D. program in education at Pitt has been long and arduous, something she has vowed to make easier for the next generation of girls from her hometown.

How Kakenya Ntaiya got from a Maasai village in Kenya to a doctoral program at Pitt and why she's going back.

All good comes at morning in Maasailand
Kakenya Ntaiya had faith that this belief, long held by her fabled Maasai tribe in southwestern Kenya, would hold true this day.

"Yes, all goodness comes at morning," she reassured herself as she strode in dawn's light through her remote East African village of cow-dung huts toward a meeting with a tribal elder -- and her future.

"You are my father," she told him. "I need your help."

Indeed. In the Maasai culture, girls are betrothed as children, circumcised as teenagers and immediately married to a man and a life of servitude to him. Despite that ages-old tradition, here she was, after refusing to marry a man hand-picked for her, asking an elder for permission to further break tribal traditions.

Respectfully, she asked to become the first woman from her village to attend college and to do so in America. She wanted the same opportunity the tribe had provided two young men before her. She needed money, she said, but more so she needed his blessing. She promised never to shame him, nor the tribe, and only wanted to do good.

The tribal leader agreed, but 16 other elders had to do likewise. Sixteen more times she made her plea; 16 more times the morning brought goodness.

That seemed fitting for a woman whose name in Maa, the Maasai language, means morning, when she was born.

And she was born again because those morning meetings with elders six years ago allowed her to seek a better life for herself and other Maasai women. Her struggle for female equality among the Maasai has brought her halfway around the world to arm herself with education and resources so she can return to her village to fight for equity.

Now a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Ntaiya, 28, wants to start a school for girls in her village, providing them with opportunities she had to fight to achieve. She plans to go back, run the school and continue to speak out against child marriages and female genital mutilation.

"I don't want girls to fight and struggle the way I did," Ms. Ntaiya said. "I do not think it's fair for young girls to struggle for education.

"It's a right everybody should be given. If boys are given the opportunity to go to school, why not girls? Why not?"

'A better life'
In asking that question, Ms. Ntaiya (pronounced n-ta-yah) acknowledges her mother's influence, support and encouragement. She honors her mother and motherland by always wearing a striking bracelet her mother made by weaving red, green, white and black beads into the Kenyan flag.

Like most Maasai women, her mother dropped out of school at a young age, married and began a family, first Kakenya and then seven other children. The family lived in Enoosaen, a remote village without electricity or running water about 20 miles from the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where tourists pay handsomely to see lions, elephants and other animals in the wild.

Ms. Ntaiya's mother was responsible for building the family hut, caring for the children, fetching firewood and water, preparing meals and tending to the cattle prized as both a source of nourishment -- drinking the milk and the blood -- and currency.

The family patriarch, a Kenyan policeman, worked in the capital city of Nairobi for a year or more at a time.

As the oldest child, Ms. Ntaiya helped her mother tend to the other children and the cattle, and she worked outside the home to earn money for school fees. Her mother lectured her and the other children repeatedly on the value of education: "I don't want you to live like me. I want you to have a better life."

Like other Maasai girls, Ms. Ntaiya was no more than 5 when she was told whom she would marry. A child himself, her future husband placed a necklace on her, indicating she was betrothed to him.

When she finished primary school, her father said, "Now you're ready."

In Maasai culture, both males and females are circumcised at puberty in "coming of age" ceremonies performed by elders. For women, the circumcision can have such serious potential health consequences that the government in Kenya has tried to eradicate the practice.

Ms. Ntaiya knew that once circumcised, she would be married and her hopes of an education and a better life would be dashed. Displaying the legendary courage Maasai tribesmen once exhibited in killing a lion with a spear, she stood up to her father. She asked to delay her circumcision and marriage until they received the results of her national test for admission to secondary school.

Her father agreed. She prayed.

Kakenya Ntaiya meets with her Pitt adviser, Noreen Garman.
Click photo for larger image.
A month and a half later, her prayers were answered. She scored higher than everyone in her school but one boy. Such a performance by a girl had never been seen in the village.

Ms. Ntaiya's father said he would go to Nairobi to find her a high school, but months went by and he didn't return. Her mother and uncles found her a school about 20 kilometers away, but when she returned home at the end of classes in April, her father was there and her sister was excited -- they were to be circumcised. That meant marriage.

Desperate, Ms. Ntaiya negotiated. She would agree to the circumcision if her father allowed her to return to school, delaying the marriage. The deal was struck, she underwent the circumcision and returned to school.

Shortly thereafter, however, her father suffered a stroke that paralyzed him. When she was home from school, Ms. Ntaiya cared for him, forming a bond most Maasai women never have with their fathers. His ailment, and his daughter's care, changed his way of thinking.

Around the same time, Morompi Ole-Ronkei, the first villager to go to college in the United States, returned from the University of Oregon for a visit. Ms. Ntaiya was spellbound by Mr. Ole-Ronkei's American clothing, the glow of success, the possibility he radiated. It was then she knew she must leave.

"I had two dresses, no shoes at all, and I looked at that life," she recalled. "The motivation was if I came to America I would live a better life. I wasn't thinking about a husband, I was thinking about helping my siblings, about how I could help the women in the village.

"I always envisioned a better life and I wanted to reach for that. The way to get it was America."

Her announced desire was greeted as heresy: "What? A woman's going to America? She's going to be a prostitute!"

She needed the elders' help and not just financially.

"I wanted them to help me with their blessing. I had to have blessings from my elders whatever I do. If I don't have their blessing, I'm cursed. I wanted that blessing so I can live happy."

She received it, and the village followed suit, taking their cattle, bead work, chickens, eggs and other items to market and donating the proceeds to her. With Mr. Ole-Ronkei's help, she applied to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va.

Before she knew it, she was on a plane, bound for a new life.

A tough adjustment
Tall, lithe and striking -- characteristics of the Maasai people -- Ms. Ntaiya glides across the Pitt campus. She smiles easily and warmly. Carrying a book-laden backpack, wearing stylish black jeans and laughing with fellow students, she's the picture of self-confidence. But in 2000, when she first arrived in the States, she was as lost as an American would be in the middle of the rolling savannah of East Africa.

"Everything I knew I didn't know anymore. All of sudden I didn't know anything."

The adjustment was difficult. Her English wasn't as polished as it is now. Not only was there no one with whom to speak Maa, there was no one with whom to speak Swahili, used by all Kenyans. And she feared she would never again see her village, her family, her people.

Slowly, she adjusted. A year later, her father died, and she went home for his funeral, eliminating her fear such a return trip was impossible. And her desire to succeed in breaking down stereotypes was further solidified when some villagers couldn't accept that she had been attending college in America, choosing instead to tell themselves that she had only gone to Nairobi.

Reinvigorated, she returned to America and her studies. And then one summer, while working in a youth camp in Virginia, she met a fellow Kenyan, Michael Mugoh, at the time an MBA candidate at Lynchburg College. A member of the Kikuyu tribe in central Kenya, Mr. Mugoh had never seen a Maasai woman, but knew of their tribal customs. He was surprised by her American dress, progressive views and beauty.

"I really wanted to hear her story," he recalled, and the story she told amazed and intrigued him. He was instantly attracted to her courage in becoming "a very progressive woman, one who knows where she wants to be and exactly understands where she comes from, very energetic, very interested in making something better than it was, in improving everything."

They returned to their separate schools, and friendship turned to romance. Then a series of events propelled Ms. Ntaiya toward her goals.

In 2004, as Ms. Ntaiya was about to graduate, the Washington Post published a four-part series about her life and her views on female equity, child marriage and female genital mutilation. The series caught the attention of the Global Health Council, which invited her to speak at a conference in Washington, D.C. Among those moved by the series was Kathy Bonk, a Pitt graduate and the executive director of the Communications Consortium Media Center in Washington, D.C., which works internationally on women's rights issues.

Ms. Bonk attended the conference, where Ms. Ntaiya was on a panel with United Nations Undersecretary-General Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund. Afterward, Ms. Ntaiya told Ms. Bonk she didn't have a job. Ms. Bonk turned to Ms. Obaid, who said she had decided already to hire Ms. Ntaiya the following fall as her organization's first youth adviser.

Ms. Ntaiya worked for the summer with Ms. Bonk's organization and then went to the U.N. group, traveling around the world on its behalf.

In May 2005, Ms. Bonk was set to go to a conference at Pitt and asked Ms. Ntaiya if she'd like to accompany her. Ms. Bonk's sister, Noreen Garman, a professor in Pitt's education department, showed Ms. Ntaiya around Oakland. Ms. Ntaiya fell in love with the education department's program and the campus. She applied, was accepted and began her doctoral program in January.

She's succeeding in the classroom -- she hopes to graduate in December 2008 -- and outside of it. Her story continues to garner attention, with the BBC recently broadcasting a piece about her around the world.

Her romance with Mr. Mugoh continued long distance. Now living in McLean, Va., where he works for a mortgage firm, Mr. Mugoh proposed June 15.

"She had difficulty in explaining it to her mom," Mr. Mugoh recalled. "She didn't know how to say it because in that tribe a girl does not tell her mom she's gotten engaged."

This weekend her self-empowerment continued. In a ceremony outside Washington yesterday, which was to be filmed by the BBC, Ms. Ntaiya married Mr. Mugoh, choosing for herself the man with whom she plans to spend the rest of her life.

Making progress
Without a whiff of complaint, Ms. Ntaiya said all she does these days is study and work, work and study. She's either in class in Posvar Hall, studying in Hillman Library or in the Squirrel Hill apartment she rents, or working 20 hours a week at the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, Downtown.

Foundation Executive Director Heather Arnett said the relationship is a great fit for both Ms. Ntaiya and the community-based group which seeks equity for women and girls in the region. Among the benefits to Ms. Ntaiya, she said, is learning about grants.

There's already been success. Ms. Ntaiya has received planning grants totaling $50,000 for her village school, the largest a $35,000 donation from the Nike Foundation. And the village has donated a tract of land for her school.

There has been other progress, too: "When I go back home, so many men value me, so many men want to talk to me, so many men wish their daughters were like me. This has changed their minds because they had never seen one like me.

"They look at [me] and see that a girl who has an education can be OK, can still [respect] the culture, the society."

Last month, she attended a lecture by Wangari Maathai, a fellow Kenyan, a Pitt graduate student 40 years ago and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her struggle for human rights and conservation in her native country. Ms. Ntaiya acknowledged the connection between the women -- their homeland, their struggles for female equality, their university -- but lamented that no other Kenyan woman had effectively followed up on Ms. Maathai's work. She hopes to rectify that.

In concluding her address in which she spoke out against injustice, Ms. Maathai noted that a flower does not discriminate in revealing its beauty.

"That's what we should do," she said. "We should be a flower to every person we touch. To every community we should bloom, because then we shall surely enjoy life and feel good about the fact we came and we touched and we did indeed bloom."

"That's my new message!" a joyful Ms. Ntaiya said over the din of a standing ovation. "To continue to bloom, no matter what."

First published on November 26, 2006 at 12:00 am
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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