Kakenya Ntaiya sought a life far different than the path marked for girls in her tiny rural Kenyan village of Enoosaen.
Like many Maasai girls, Ntaiya’s future was mapped by cultural tradition: marital engagement at age five, followed by a circumcision as a teen, a painful rite of passage that would mark the end of her formal education and lead to marriage and children.
Refusing to accept her fate, she told her father she would agree to be circumcised, but only if she could finish high school and continue her education, threatening to run away and disgrace her family. After acquiescing to the painful coming-of-age ceremony, she was able to extricate herself from an early marriage and then negotiated with village elders, who allowed Ntaiya to leave if she promised to return and use her schooling to benefit the community.
Money from villagers and scholarships enabled Ntaiya to earn her undergraduate degree from Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, the trailblazing change agent, educator, and activist continues to pay it forward.
Since starting the Kakenya Center of Excellence boarding school in Enoosaen in 2009, nearly 280 impoverished girls have come to get a primary school education while gaining empowerment to break the troubling cycle of long-held cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and forced early marriage.
“Parents now see that their girls have another future—to have different lives than them, to have good jobs, and a way out of poverty,’’ says Ntaiya, a 2010 National Geographic emerging explorer.
The first 26 graduate high school in 2017, and most would like to attend college in Kenya or elsewhere if they can qualify for admission and find financial assistance. But the school’s success providing education has swamped capacity. Over 200 girls want to enroll every year; the center can accommodate just 40.
“We’ve overcome politics, laws, and tradition. So saying no to parents who say their girls’ hope is in your hands is frustrating. It makes you feel very helpless,” says Ntaiya, 37.
To meet demand, the school has purchased additional land to expand the existing school to include kindergarten through third grades and build a separate school, tripling overall enrollment to 600 by 2018. But raising the estimated $5 million for construction and operating costs from charitable organizations, donations, and other sources is daunting.
“Funding is a roadblock, and it’s scary to think about,’’ she says. “But we started with nothing and built a classroom at a time,’’ she says. “It’s a challenge, but a good one. People have seen the potential of what you can do. If you give girls an opportunity, they will thrive.”
Ntaiya hopes the center’s health and leadership training skills program—taught to 3,000 kids in other communities—can eventually expand to 500 schools, under a five-year plan.
“We’ve created a model for rural communities to empower and create leaders,’’ Ntaiya says. “The goal is to plant women in leadership positions so they can make a difference.”