Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Woman challenges tradition, brings change to her Kenyan village

By Kathleen Toner, CNN
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Only 11% of Maasai girls in Kenya finish primary school, according to the government
  • Kakenya Ntaiya is trying to change the culture and empower girls there
  • Ntaiya studied abroad, came back to her village to open its first primary school for girls

Enoosaen, Kenya (CNN) -- When she was 14 years old, Kakenya Ntaiya entered the cow pen behind her home with an elderly woman carrying a rusty knife.

As a crowd from her Maasai village looked on, Ntaiya sat down, lifted her skirt and opened her legs. The woman grabbed Ntaiya's most intimate body parts and, in just moments, cut them out.

"It (was) really painful. I fainted," recalled Ntaiya, now 34. "You're not supposed to cry."

For generations, this ceremony was a rite of passage for every Maasai girl, some as young as 10; soon afterward, they would marry and drop out of school.

About 140 million girls and women worldwide have been affected by female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision. The procedure is commonly based on religious and cultural beliefs, including efforts to prevent premarital sex and marital infidelity.

While female circumcision and child marriage are now illegal in Kenya -- new laws banning genital mutilation have contributed to a decline in the practice -- officials acknowledge that they still go on, especially in rural tribal areas. Despite free primary education being mandated 10 years ago by the Kenyan government, educating girls is still not a priority for the Maasai culture. According to the Kenyan government, only 11% of Maasai girls in Kenya finish primary school.

"It means the end of their dreams of whatever they want to become in life," Ntaiya said.

But when Ntaiya endured the painful ritual in 1993, she had a plan. She negotiated a deal with her father, threatening to run away unless he promised she could finish high school after the ceremony.

More than 150 Maasai girls are enrolled at the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Enoosaen, Kenya.
More than 150 Maasai girls are enrolled at the Kakenya Center for Excellence in Enoosaen, Kenya.

"I really liked going to school," she said. "I knew that once I went through the cutting, I was going to be married off. And my dream of becoming a teacher was going to end."

Dreams like Ntaiya's weren't the norm in Enoosaen, a small village in western Kenya. Engaged at age 5, Ntaiya spent her childhood learning the skills she would need to be a good Maasai wife. But her mother encouraged her children to strive for a better life, and Ntaiya heeded her advice, postponing the coming-of-age ritual as long as she could. When her father finally insisted, she took her stand.

Ntaiya's bold move paid off. She excelled in high school and earned a college scholarship in the United States. Her community held a fundraiser to raise money for her airfare, and in exchange, she promised to return and help the village.

Over the next decade, Ntaiya would earn her degree, a job at the United Nations and eventually a doctorate in education. But she never forgot the vow she made to village elders.

In 2009, she opened the first primary school for girls in her village, the Kakenya Center for Excellence. Today, Ntaiya is helping more than 150 girls receive the education and opportunities that she had to sacrifice so much to attain.

After Dale Beatty, right, lost his legs in the Iraq war, his community thanked him for his service by helping him build a home. To pay it forward, Beatty co-founded Purple Heart Homes, which has helped build or modify homes for dozens of disabled U.S. veterans. "We wouldn't leave someone behind on the battlefield," Beatty said. "Why would we do it at home?" After Dale Beatty, right, lost his legs in the Iraq war, his community thanked him for his service by helping him build a home. To pay it forward, Beatty co-founded Purple Heart Homes, which has helped build or modify homes for dozens of disabled U.S. veterans. "We wouldn't leave someone behind on the battlefield," Beatty said. "Why would we do it at home?"
The top 10 CNN Heroes of 2013
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
The top 10 CNN Heroes of 2013 The top 10 CNN Heroes of 2013

The Kakenya Center for Excellence started as a traditional day school, but now the students, who range from fourth to eighth grade, live at the school. This spares the girls from having to walk miles back and forth, which puts them at risk of being sexually assaulted, a common problem in rural African communities. It also ensures the girls don't spend all their free time doing household chores.

"Now, they can focus on their studies -- and on being kids," Ntaiya said. "It's the only way you can give a girl child a chance to excel."

Students receive three meals a day as well as uniforms, books and tutoring. There are also extracurricular activities such as student council, debate and soccer. Class sizes are small -- many schools in Kenya are extremely overcrowded -- and the girls have more chances to participate. With these opportunities and the individual attention they receive, the girls are inspired to start dreaming big.

"They want to become doctors, pilots, lawyers," Ntaiya said. "It's exciting to see that."

Just 4 years old, the school already ranks among the top in its district.

Fathers are now saying, 'My daughter could do better than my son.'
CNN Hero Kakenya Ntaiya

"Fathers are now saying, 'My daughter could do better than my son,' " Ntaiya said.

As a public school, the Kakenya Center for Excellence receives some financial support from the Kenyan government. But the majority of the school's expenses are paid for by Ntaiya's U.S.-based nonprofit. While families are asked to contribute to cover the cost of the girls' meals, an expense that can be paid in maize or beans, Ntaiya covers the costs of any students who cannot pay.

Each year, more than 100 girls apply for approximately 30 spots available in each new class. Parents who enroll their daughters must agree that they will not be subjected to genital mutilation or early marriage.

Many families are willing to accept Ntaiya's terms, and that's the kind of change she was hoping to inspire. It took her years to drum up support for the project, but eventually she persuaded the village elders to donate land for the school.

"It's still quite challenging to push for change. Men are in charge of everything," she said. "But nothing good comes on a silver plate. You have to fight hard."

Chief John Naleke, a village elder, can testify firsthand to Ntaiya's powers of persuasion. As recently as 2006, he claimed there was no need for girls to be educated. But she managed to win him over; he's now an important partner in her efforts.

Naleke said Ntaiya's accomplishments and spirit have made her a role model, noting that villagers also respect the fact that she didn't forget her promise.

"We have several sons who have gone to the United States for school. Kakenya is the only one that I can think of that has come back to help us," Naleke said. "What she tells us, it touches us. ... She brought a school and a light and is trying to change old customs to help girls get a new, better life."

In 2011, Ntaiya moved to Nairobi, Kenya's capital, with her husband and two young sons. She spends about half her time in Enoosaen, where she loves to visit with the girls and see them evolve.

"When they start, they are so timid," she said. "(Now) the confidence they have, it's just beyond words. It's the most beautiful thing."

Her nonprofit also runs health and leadership camps that are open to all sixth-grade girls in the village and teach them about female circumcision, child marriage, teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.

"We tell them about every right that they have, and we teach them how to speak up," Ntaiya said. "It's about empowering the girls."

In the coming years, Ntaiya plans to expand her school to include lower grades. She also wants to provide tutoring for the students from her first class when they head to high school next year, and she wants to eventually open a career center for them. She hopes that one day the school will serve as a model for girls' education throughout Africa.

Ultimately, Ntaiya wants girls to have the opportunity to go as far as their abilities will take them.

"I came back so girls don't have to negotiate like I did to achieve their dreams," she said. "That's why I wake up every morning."

Want to get involved? Check out the Kakenya Center for Excellence website at www.kakenyasdream.org and see how to help.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0303 GMT (1103 HKT)
Chad Pregracke, who has dedicated his life to cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, is the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
CNN Hero of the Year Chad Pregracke pledged to give $10,000 of his winnings to each of the other top 10 Heroes.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Celebrities joined CNN in New York to honor this year's top 10 Heroes.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
They clean up rivers, build homes for disabled veterans and bring health care to some of the darkest parts of the world.
October 16, 2013 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
It was supposed to be a routine patrol in Iraq. But when the Humvee he was in veered slightly off the road, Dale Beatty's life changed forever.
November 3, 2013 -- Updated 2346 GMT (0746 HKT)
Dr. George Bwelle travels through Cameroon's jungles to provide free medical care for thousands.
October 21, 2013 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Many Americans lack easy access to fresh, healthy food. That isn't acceptable to Robin Emmons.
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Foster children don't often get the things that other children do, but one group is trying to help change that.
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 2325 GMT (0725 HKT)
For many people, the violence in Camden, New Jersey, can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city.
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 2144 GMT (0544 HKT)
For many children fighting cancer, it can be extremely tough to make their chemotherapy appointments.
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
When Kakenya Ntaiya was 14, she negotiated a deal with her father: I'll endure female circumcision if you let me finish high school.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Chad Pregracke has made it his life's mission to clean up the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways.
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Estella Pyfrom noticed that fewer students had access to a computer after school. So she bought a bus and brought technology to the kids.
October 13, 2013 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
In many countries, mothers are dying during childbirth -- not because they lack skilled doctors, but because they lack reliable electricity.
ADVERTISEMENT