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Photograph by Sharon Farmer
For thousands of families in Kenya, seven cows are more valuable than a girl’s future.
Those cows, a typical bridal dowry in Maasai culture, prove so tempting that most fathers in rural areas decide their daughter’s education will end and marriage begin by age 13. Traditionally this event is preceded by female genital circumcision, a mutilation that remains a mystery to the girls until the moment it is performed. The girls, children themselves, will immediately start their own families and live out their days carrying water from the river, gathering firewood, and tending the treasured cows.
Now, a building rises in one remote village that could change everything: The region’s first and only primary school for girls. Its creation an act of sheer will, stubborn persistence, and inexplicable optimism on the part of Kakenya Ntaiya.
Not long ago, Ntaiya was a village girl herself. Firstborn of eight children, Ntaiya shouldered unusual responsibilities even by local standards. Her father, a policeman, worked in a distant city. His absence, the lack of an older brother, and extreme poverty required Ntaiya to plow her own fields as well as work side by side with men on sugarcane farms. Helping feed and care for younger siblings also fell to Ntaiya, and on the frequent nights when food was scarce, she and her mother went without it.
When Ntaiya was five, her parents announced her engagement to a six-year-old neighbor. “I looked at this boy,” she recalls, “whose family was even poorer than my own. I looked at all my mother’s anger and pain. I looked at this hopeless future in front of me and I said, No way."
School was her lone bright spot. She made excellent grades, admired her teachers, and hoped to some day become one herself. “I lived in a hut made of grass and mud that we shared with goats and sheep. But I had dreams. I kept pictures of beautiful green places with nice homes and somehow knew there was a different life out there."
In a district where even today only 11 percent of girls continue past primary school, Ntaiya negotiated with her father to be that she would only be circumcised if she was allowed to complete high school. He agreed and after graduation, she was accepted at a teachers college in Kenya and a university in the United States. But, she says, “by then my father was in the hospital, paralyzed. We had sold almost everything to pay for his care, so there was no money for college, especially in the U.S.”
Although shunned for attempting what few boys dreamed of, Ntaiya finally persuaded a key village leader to help. His sway gave her the community and financial support to continue the education that would change her life—and the lives of other girls in that same village today. Ntaiya is completing her Ph.D. in education in the U.S. and directing the school for girls she has launched in her hometown.
Ntaiya's Academy for Girls stands in stark contrast to other local rural schools, where classrooms overflow with 70 children per teacher. Attendance is compulsory through sixth grade, but in a culture that considers educating girls a bad investment since most will leave to marry by age 13, teachers focus on boys. Social custom trains women to never look men in the eye and to move out of their way on the road. Not surprisingly, girls shrink in the classroom, afraid to compete, raise hands, or seek help. Many are held back year after year, give up, and drop out.
To reverse that trend, Ntaiya believes excellent primary education is crucial. Now in its second year, her academy has 60 girls and four teachers, with a fifth to be hired soon. The school plans to accept 30 new girls each year. “We keep class sizes very small,” she explains, “so each girl receives a great deal of individual attention. We’ve also extended the school year with extra weeks in the summer focusing on English and math.”
Kenya holds national examinations for all eighth graders. Those who score best earn entrance to top high schools, further improving their chances for limited spots at universities. “When the top 100 names from the exams are published in the newspaper,” Ntaiya reports, “no one from our community is ever mentioned. I’m going to make sure my girls are on that list.”
Along with promoting rigorous academics, her school nurtures leadership skills. “After just a few months here, they become completely different people,” Ntaiya observes. “In a girls-only environment they lead, make decisions, speak up, and gain confidence. They’re smart and thriving. They just needed a chance.”
A health course gives girls information they would not otherwise receive on circumcision, the consequences of sex and early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and their personal rights. Already the school has intervened with help from authorities to prevent a circumcision at the request of a fourth grader.
While Ntaiya insists that families who can pay tuition do so, she also works with donors to provide scholarships for girls living in extreme poverty and at high risk of child marriage. Today she focuses on completing classroom and dormitory construction so students from distant villages can board at the school. “What I need most right now,” she says with a smile, “are bricks and cement.”
Ntaiya hopes her academy will be a model replicated in other remote areas. “I’m helping girls who cannot speak for themselves. Why should they go through the hardships I endured? They’ll be stepping on my shoulders to move up the ladder—they’re not going to start on the bottom.”
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In Their Words
I want this school not only to empower Kenya’s girls, but also their mothers, fathers, and entire villages.
Follow Megan Orr's new blog for the Kakenya Center for Excellence.
Emerging Explorer Kakenya Ntaiya's personal experience inspires her to teach young girls in Kenya.
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