Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute and the founder of Kakenya’s Dream, a female empowerment and education non-profit based in the rural Masai Mara of Kenya.
Kakenya grew up in the Masai Mara, in a community where it was expected that women wouldn’t go to school beyond childhood. They’d be subject to early, arranged marriages, and worse.
Yet, incredibly, Kakenya forged a different path.
On this episode of Trending Globally, you’ll hear Kakenya’s story in her own words, and learn how it led her to develop a new model for girls' education in rural Kenya. It’s a model based on a premise that her life story also affirms: that the education of girls and the health of a community are deeply intertwined.
[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin.
You know those people who just change your day after you talk with them? Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya is one of those people. She's a senior fellow at Watson and the founder of Kakenya's Dream, a female empowerment and education nonprofit based in the rural Maasai Mara of Kenya.
Kakenya grew up in the Maasai Mara in a community where it was expected that women wouldn't go to school beyond childhood. They'd be subject to early arranged marriages and worse. Yet incredibly, Kakenya forged a different path.
On this episode, you'll hear Kakenya's story and how it led her to develop a new model for girls education in rural Kenya. It's a model based on a premise that her life story also affirms-- that the education of girls and the health of a community are deeply intertwined.
A quick warning-- we briefly touch on some issues of sexual violence and trauma in this episode. If you want to skip any of those topics, you can jump to minute six. Here's Kakenya.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I grew up in a rural village in Kenya. It's beautiful-- rolling hills. It's in the Maasai Mara. Actually, it's beyond Maasai Mara.
SARAH BALDWIN: The Maasai Mara is an iconic region of Kenya, and its communities are probably ones you're at least a little familiar with.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: The Maasai people, you would say they are famous because if you look at the National Geographic, that is tall, dressed in dreads. We have lots of beads. Our country uses us for tourist attractions. Pictures everywhere of my Maasais. We seem to have tried all our best to retain our cultural aspects of life as much as we can and spreading it to other people. So that, I think, that's why we are really, really known.
I'm very Maasai. I speak Maasai. You find me in the village, you wouldn't know that I'm a PhD holder. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya grew up in a home without running water or electricity.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: It's rural life pretty much. Maasais, we are nomads so we moved often, but that's life.
SARAH BALDWIN: Another part of that life? Very strict gender roles and limited opportunities for girls.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: As a child, as long as I can remember, I didn't choose what I did. I did whatever my mother told me to do. Sweeping the house, collecting water, taking care of my siblings, washing dishes.
SARAH BALDWIN: In addition to chores, her mother had another demand-- that Kakenya go to school. Kakenya's mom never went, and she was determined to make sure her daughter got that opportunity. So Kakenya went to school, and she liked school.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Because I found freedom. [LAUGHS]
I could actually run to school, and there I found other girls and boys, other kids that I played with. Jumping rope was my favorite thing to do. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: The social life was freeing, but it was more than that.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: There were female teachers who really dressed up nicely. As a young girl, seeing a teacher who was wearing new clothes and neat high heeled shoes, or whatever kind of shoes that they had, they made their hair. I was like, wow.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya kind of wanted to become a teacher, but that path wasn't considered an option for her.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: The teachers I was seeing were women from other communities that had come in to teach in our schools, and there were very few of them anyway. In our community, the gold standard of life was to get married as soon as you reach puberty and have children and start your home. That's what you're brought up being told is what every little girl should to be aspiring for.
SARAH BALDWIN: By those standards, Kakenya was set up for success.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: My engagement at the age of five.
SARAH BALDWIN: That's right. Kakenya was engaged around the age of five, basically as early as she could remember.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: It was a decision that was made by my parents. It was kind of like a really good thing for my family because it meant that I had a husband that could marry me as soon as I was a teenager.
SARAH BALDWIN: And in Maasai culture, there was more to it than just getting married.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: In our community, a transition from childhood to womanhood is that you have to undergo the rite of passage, which is female genital cutting.
SARAH BALDWIN: Also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM. It's a physical trauma that has no health benefits and carries all sorts of potential complications. It's a ritual that's inextricably linked with early marriage. Because of that, there were two reasons Kakenya dreaded the ceremony.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I knew that if I go through FGM, I was going to get married and my dream of becoming a teacher was going to end.
SARAH BALDWIN: But Kakenya is what we call a problem solver, determined as hell. So she made a deal with her father.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I could only go through it if he would allow me to go to school.
SARAH BALDWIN: He agreed.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: So my time came, and yeah, we went through that. I was 13 years old. The experience was scary. The actual cutting is traumatizing. It's a tough thing that any girl or human being should go through.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya healed from the procedure and went back to school. And she started to have a new ambition-- to study abroad.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I had seen how young men who went abroad, how they looked happier. They look excited. They showed a different side of themselves that was fun, and I wanted to have that fun.
SARAH BALDWIN: Now, she wasn't really sure how to make that happen.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: There was no internet. I didn't go online and research.
SARAH BALDWIN: But that saying, "the harder you try, the luckier you get?" Well, as high school wore on, Kakenya came into some luck.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: So there was then, was a young man, much older now. His name is Dr. Laronge.
SARAH BALDWIN: Dr. Laronge was from Kakenya's community, and he had studied at the University of Oregon.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: He had helped another young man in my community go to school abroad so I approached him and told him that I also want to go to study abroad. I told him that I wanted to go to America.
SARAH BALDWIN: Needless to say, he was very surprised.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Studying abroad for a young woman was never even in the picture of anyone. So I think he couldn't like comprehend it, but I insisted on asking him for his support. So he saw the determination in me, and he supported me.
SARAH BALDWIN: He helped her apply for a scholarship to Randolph-Macon women's college in Lynchburg, Virginia.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: He brought the application form to me. So I hand wrote it, and there were no cell phones or phones or landlines in my village. So it was more about I fill out the form, I have to wait for him to come by. He lived in Nairobi, or I'll go to Nairobi, try to look for him to give him the forms.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya submitted the forms and got the scholarship. Although, at that point, the hard part had only begun.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: There was a lot of resistance from the community members of giving a scholarship to a woman or a girl, sending her to go to another country. That was seen as a lost opportunity for a young man to do that.
SARAH BALDWIN: She also had to convince her dad.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Growing up as Maasais, you know, girls are not supposed to be around their dad. So we stay in the kitchen with the mothers, and we do what the mothers do. So you're never around your father. And so in this case, for me, I knew that I needed to kind of tell my dad what my mind was. So in my own respectful way, I approached him at a distance [LAUGHS] with a barrier between me and him just so that he can hear my voice. And yeah, because I didn't want him to kind of beat me. And I didn't-- I was ready to take off.
SARAH BALDWIN: Take off as in run away. That was her backup plan.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: But I think he saw the determination in me, and he knew that this one is just something else. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: At Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, Kakenya started out with a very practical goal.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I came to the US thinking I wanted to study banking. My goal was to have as much money as I can, and I knew that being in the bank I was going to do that. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: But that changed.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I was exposed to, for the first time of course, I had the libraries. I was reading about human rights. I was learning about girls, about UN, World Bank, African Union. Anything you can I could find myself about development and women's rights.
SARAH BALDWIN: But it wasn't just the libraries and classes that inspired her. It was a little bit like what she got when she first went to school.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: My first year of college, I came in during the winter, and the students decided that they were all going to go sliding. I come from a community where it's looking at me. I'm a full woman. Why am I going to slide? And so I was very held back. And then my roommate was like, Kakenya, you have to do this. She takes me, and just lets me down this hill. And I was like, whoa. It brought my childhood back. And I felt like, wow. I wanted children to play like that.
SARAH BALDWIN: Once again, school freed Kakenya to imagine a new future. She ended up majoring in international relations and politics. She wasn't able to make the long trip back home many times while in school. But when she did, she began to see it through changed eyes.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: My first time going back, I had gone home, and a girl was married and I could not help her. I couldn't rescue her from marriage, and that was painful.
SARAH BALDWIN: By then, Kakenya was getting her PhD in education at the University of Pittsburgh.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I went back to university. I told my professor, I am going to build a school for girls. And that was it. I couldn't help that girl, and I said, I can't let anymore girls. I'm just going to help. Even if it's five, even if it's one. I'm going to start a school for girls. I wanted to create a place for young girls so they can dream. They can follow their path, and they can become who they want to become in life.
SARAH BALDWIN: She went back to Kenya, but not just as a visitor this time. She wanted to start a school and change the world. And you know what that means.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I made meetings upon meetings upon meetings.
SARAH BALDWIN: She knew that support from the community for this project was essential, including from the men.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: If they don't embrace it, it's not going to be a school. The challenge was that they had never seen a woman do something, and I would call for meetings. The men would go for another meeting before they came to the meeting that I had called because they want to oppose me, or they want to oppose the ideas I was bringing.
SARAH BALDWIN: But she slowly gained support. This commitment, though, to community buy in, as organizers would say, made her path and especially slow and winding one.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: The very first meetings, the men are like no, we don't have a boys' school. [LAUGHS] And I tell them, well, we have a lot of educated men. Can we approach them to build a school for boys so I can build one for girls?
SARAH BALDWIN: She convinced them to let her move forward with a girls school, but there were so many things like this.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I had thousands-- I mean thousands of meetings.
SARAH BALDWIN: Another especially difficult part of this process was that education, early marriage, and of course, female genital mutilation-- these things couldn't be separated. But Kakenya knew that in Maasai culture, suggesting all these traditions be abandoned, might be, as the politicians say, a non-starter.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I didn't go saying, let's stop FGM. I went saying, let's educate our girls. And so education was a common ground. And I would tell them, look at me. Education has made me this way. So I let them see their daughters through me.
SARAH BALDWIN: With time, though, she was able to build up trust and interest in her programs. In Two-Thousand-Six, the program started.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: It started as a day school. The girls started in a really shady tent house, and I didn't care. We had good teachers. And they were teaching under a tree and that was fine.
SARAH BALDWIN: And over time, she was able to approach the more sensitive subjects around girls' health and lives.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: We started in training them about what would stop this girl from achieving her academic excellence? So the issues of FGM would come. The issues of child marriage would come. The issues of teen pregnancy would come. So I would talk about, what do we need to do to make sure that these girls don't drop from school, or don't drop from that trajectory in their lives? It takes time. It takes patience. And it takes that consistency of being very present and being available.
SARAH BALDWIN: Another challenge-- making clear to her community who exactly she was trying to serve.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I'm thinking, the girls who came from a family that both parents are illiterate, they walked to school. They had-- some of them were orphans. Some of them were kind of like this lower caste families. And I was targeting those girls. They're like, Kakenya, you want the school to be the best, you have to get the ones who are smart. But I'm like, no, it's the other way around.
SARAH BALDWIN: In Two-Thousand-Nine, they were finally able to turn the program into a boarding school. They called it Kakenya's Center for Excellence.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Boarding school is a safe environment for them to run. Letting girls be girls. We teach beyond just math and English. We teach about health holistically. We teach about FGM, what it is, what happens to you. What are your rights?
We take them to field trips, and ensuring that they see the world beyond just their own village. So when they're able to go to Nairobi and see women driving cars, the women in parliament, they can see themselves.
SARAH BALDWIN: A central idea behind the school is that giving girls an education changes the communities they live in, too. Let's take an example.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: We met-- her father was like, one of these very strong men people feared and all that. So her mom was the one who brought her to school like for enrollment day, and this mother had never gone to school herself. I mean, the father had also never gone to school.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lynette's mom was committed to sending her, though. And once she was in school, Kakenya started to invite Lynette's father to come visit. And seeing his daughter thrive in that setting, it changed him.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: When she did her eighth grade exams, she was the first girl in this school. But not just this school, but in our county, and she became a star. And what was so amazing-- her father was like the most difficult person, and then the moment Lynette did this national exam and performed the best, he was so happy. He hired a car to just decorate. He decorated the whole car. I was like, who is this person? I don't know you. [LAUGHS] And drove the girl around the village, just like as a sign of how excited he was. Oh, my goodness.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lynette was accepted to an elite high school in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. The big city, far away from Lynette's family. Her dad's reaction?
KAKENYA NTAIYA: He was like, no problem. I'll take her. I mean, this is a guy who had not been to Nairobi. Went to Nairobi, finding a place where her daughter was going to go to high school. And it was just amazing.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya's program hasn't just changed girls lives. It's changed men's lives, too. It was around this time that very influential figures started to take note of what Kakenya was doing.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: A reporter from Washington Post came to do an interview of me because this university I went to was like, this is an amazing story. We have to share. I was like, I didn't the power of media myself. I was like, oh OK. So the story was done. It was really big. It was the whole front of Washington Post, front page. But I think the biggest one came when CNN vetted my work-- my goodness-- and gave us that CNN Heroes award. So that's when everybody kind of paid attention. And also I did a Ted talk, so those little bits of things.
SARAH BALDWIN: Since then, her work's been highlighted by the likes of Melinda Gates and the Obamas. You can only imagine what Lynette's father must have thought when--
KAKENYA NTAIYA: When President Obama was in Kenya in Twenty-Fifteen, we were invited to be part of our delegation that he was meeting, and Lynnette gets to speak to President Obama. [LAUGHS] I'm like, what? [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: This has all allowed the organization to grow beyond anything Kakenya originally envisioned.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: We are taking-- I mean, enrollment is like 40 students, and there are over 200 or 300 girls applying. So I would always ask, what happens to the other ones? So we put our trainings together.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya and her team created trainings and programs that have spread their method of holistic education to thousands of girls.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: We call them health and leadership, and it's really helped. Inside health, it's everything from managing your periods because so many girls lose school because of just even having access to sanitary towels. So we provide sanitary towels. We have a whole training on FGM, early marriages, taking care of yourself.
And the leadership component is knowing your rights, demanding your rights. And that program is actually now in close to over 80 schools. And we teach both boys and girls [LAUGHS] about this stuff because we realize you can't just empower girls and not bring the boys to the table. So yeah, we are doing more. It's not what I signed up for, but I'm in it. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: And Lynnette?
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Now as we speak, she's graduating from University in Sydney. She's graduating in the field of IT. And just the other week, I was told that she's getting a scholarship to do something in engineering. I'm like, whoa. [LAUGHS] Yes, cyber engineering, cyber security. It's really amazing. She's driving. Her life will never be the same.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lynette's is only one of many such stories.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: We have over 80 students in university and colleges. And some are just finishing, becoming teachers. Some are nurses. And just seeing the future for them, it's amazing.
SARAH BALDWIN: Lots of students don't end up going to college, but that's hardly the point. As Kakenya puts it--
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I am who I am because of going to school. I keep telling the students that go to our schools that I had wanted this school to be my school, where there's no limits to who you become. A place that you can be a child. I grew up in an environment where a girl was never a child. I wanted to create a school, a safe environment, conducive learning place for young women, for young girls, so they can dream. They can follow their path, and they can become who they want to become in life.
SARAH BALDWIN: Kakenya lives now as a self-described nomad.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: I don't live anywhere permanently. [LAUGHS] So I split my time between Washington-- well, Northern Virginia and Kenya. [LAUGHS] I'm here today, Providence. I'm a nomad.
SARAH BALDWIN: This year, Kakenya is leading a study group with Brown undergraduates at the Watson Institute. Students will look at case studies, including Kakenya's, that illustrate how gender equality and education intersect, and not just in the developing world.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: Gender equality and gender inequalities is not a Kenyan thing, or a village, in my village I grew up in. It's a global issue. And truly, that we need to see more women paid the same, raise up into those positions, and I challenge them that coming out of Brown University degree. You come out of this University, you're already at a higher level. And that you need to yes, keep pushing, but also look down and see which other woman is down that you can raise them up and give them a hand, create an opportunity for them. Bring another chair next to you.
I'm looking to explore and just learn. And I tell them, it's not theory. It's very practical, so-- [LAUGHS] I said, I would leave your period to your professors in class. We are coming here to learn together. [LAUGHS] And make it very practical.
SARAH BALDWIN: But as Kakenya's work has shown, practical and visionary are not mutually exclusive terms.
KAKENYA NTAIYA: There's a ripple effect, and I'm here just watching it grow. [LAUGHS]
SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Sarah Baldwin.
You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts on our website. We'll put a link to it in the show notes.
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