"I Was Engaged When I Was Five"
For the past five years, the boarding school she started in her own village of Enoosaen, 250 miles outside Nairobi, has educated Maasai girls from the fourth through eighth grades, giving them the foundation to continue their schooling in high school and beyond. Traditionally, most girls in this area are married off as young teenagers. As a child, Kakenya resisted that path and imagined a radically different life for herself.
She succeeded in creating that life, earning a B.A. and later a Ph.D. in education in the United States. Now married and the mother of two young boys, she spoke to National Geographic about being back in Kenya to help other girls pursue their education and their dreams.
What's happening at school these days?
We have 155 students in grades four to eight. Twenty-two girls are graduating this year; it's our first graduating class. They are 13, 14, 15 years old. They're all going to high school, all of them. It's really cool. I'm really excited for that.
Tell me about some of these girls.
One of them, Angeline, came as an orphan. She used to be very shy. Now she's bubbly and happy. She wants to be a pilot now. She's curious, very hardworking. It's quite a trip to see the change in her. I know she'll do very well in her exams. She's very focused.
There's another student named Kakenya. I think every girl born in the morning is named Kakenya—Kakenya means morning. I look at her and think of myself. It's not just because she has the same name. She's not number one in the school, but she has exceptional leadership skills. She just amazes me. If the school wasn't there, she'd be married. When I look at her, I'm like, Wow, that's me!
Your school opened in 2009. What has changed in the years since?
There are still challenges and obstacles. But people are speaking up about [girls' education]. So now it's not about convincing them about the need for girls' education. People are aware of it. The lawyers and courts are on the side of the girls. It's about pushing people to act on what they are saying. It's a very different challenge because it's hard to tell someone who knows what they're supposed to do to actually do it.
At first people used to think I was crazy. They would say, "Girls should marry." But I think people saw I'm not giving up. People used to fight me. But I'm not leaving. No matter what, I'm staying. I say to them, "You may hate me now—but you'll end up liking me!"
You were the first in your community to challenge the custom of cutting girls—female genital mutilation. How common is the practice now?
It's not as visible as it used to be. It is practiced at night; it has gone underground. It is not done publicly. If you're caught, you are put into jail. So it is declining. People are aware and accept that it is against the law. The girls at my school do not go through cutting. They are very empowered changemakers. I love them so much. They say, "We're going to get jobs." For me, I look at them and I can't believe I'm hearing this from eighth-grade girls.
We could not question our culture. But they question it. It's great to see it. Sometimes I look at myself and think, It's only five years and this is what I've achieved. People are yearning for change, looking for leaders. People in the community want change, they want to learn, but they didn't have that person to help them. We're seeing people talking about girls' education and putting them in school now. So ten years from now we'll see all the girls in school, and none will be cut. And that will be history!
Your school has been very successful. Are you hoping to start similar schools elsewhere in Kenya?
I want to replicate the school and am looking for partners for monitoring and evaluation. Some girls come to us in fourth grade and don't even know how to write their names or count from 1 to 20 or read. The fourth graders have to go back to first-grade work. The rural areas are very left out. Most people who suffer are poor. All who can afford it get a good education. This is the situation in Kenya. But how can we compete if kids are left out before they've started school? We have to create early childhood centers to help those who are left. They are so behind, and they catch up so fast if they're given the opportunity.
Your focus is on providing schooling for girls. What about the educational needs of boys?
What happened in the community is there's been a focus on girls over the last few years. Boys always went to high school. But now they don't go to high school. They're dropping out of school and more are staying at home. They drop out and ask their parents for a portion of land and they get married and become men and have children. But in our culture, men can be very lazy and do nothing. They start drinking. Their lives are being wasted. For me, it's like, Oh no! This is not happening!
So the girls are doing very well, but the boys are starting to be left behind. I'm looking for partners in that area. How do we raise responsible men to be changemakers like the girls? For me it's a big challenge. I want to help the whole community.
The right of girls to have a decent education has been in the news a lot lately because of all the speculation about whether the Nobel Peace Prize would go to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager and education activist who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban last year on her way home from school. A lot of people were disappointed that she didn't win. What did you think?
She's a hero, no matter what. She is one of the bravest persons on Earth. She's something else. But she's a child—as much as we want her to be a woman. She has gone through so much trauma. As a parent, I'm thinking about her welfare as a child. She needs to be a child. She needs to finish her education! I want to reach out and hold her and say, Be a girl! She's carrying a lot of weight. There is too much on her shoulders. So I hope all of those who really care about her don't put a lot of pressure on her. Being in the public eye is the most draining thing someone can go through. I feel for her and I pray for her.
Your mother has played a huge role in your life. She gave you the freedom and the support you needed so you could go to school and wouldn't have to marry young. How has your relationship evolved?
My mom is very proud of who I am now. The work I do has made me a public figure, needed by many. But I try at home to be a daughter. We have a very close relationship. But I'm living a life she can't even comprehend. It's a different life. My request to have a different life than hers really has come to be. I wouldn't be who I am if not for her. Our family was very poor but now it's a center of hope in the community, and Mom is the gatekeeper. She's, like, everything.
(Related: "Celebrating the Courage of Children in Rajasthan.")