Earlier this month CNN announced their ‘Top Ten Heroes of 2013’. Kakenya Ntaiya, a Maasai from Kenya, is one of them.
Common to Maasai tradition, Kakenya underwent female circumcision when she was 14 years old. For most Maasai girls this procedure marks the end of their schooling days and the beginning of their duties as a wife. However, Kakenya struck a deal with her father; agreeing to the procedure on the condition she be allowed to continue schooling afterwards. Later, Kakenya received a scholarship to attend college in the United States and her village raised the funds for her airfare. In 2009, Kakenya made good on her promise to return and opened up the Kakenya Center for Excellence (KCE). It currently provides boarding and education to 150 Maasai girls. Parents who enroll their daughters must agree that they will not be subjected to genital mutilation or early marriage.
Recently in one of my classes we were discussing the issues behind corruption in Africa and several students expressed that they didn’t believe one person could change a system. Well, Kakenya Ntaiya sure is!
The Maasai are an indigenous tribe located in Kenya and Tanzania, and known to be strong warriors. The men dominate the tribe with women having the same status as children. Kakenya took a big risk at age 14 by standing up to her father. She fought long and hard for the village elders to give her land to build the current KCE. A village elder, Chief Naleke, claimed as recently as 2006 that there was no need for girls to be educated. Kakenya has now won him over and he is an important partner for KCE.
It is not easy to go against such strongly rooted cultural traditions. Kakenya told National Geographic that:
“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!”
Kakenya may not be changing the practices and beliefs of all Maasai but she’s changing them for this village and for these 150 girls. In 2006, female circumcision and child marriage was made illegal in Kenya and Kakenya reports that this practice is significantly decreasing. However, currently only 11% of Maasai girls in Kenya finish primary school (CNN). Kakenya’s work touches on some important principles for increasing girls’ education. Kakenya has realized the importance of challenging the cultural beliefs and traditions standing in the way of girls’ education. Even restructuring KCE from a day school to a boarding school was done to make it easier for girls to attend. It can be dangerous for girls to walk the miles to school alone. Kakenya’s nonprofit also teaches the community about HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, and child marriage. I love that Kakenya is an example of a local bringing change to her own community. Change doesn’t have to come from outside. Kakenya’s journey shows that change does not happen over night. Yet, every small step made to increase girls’ education is a step in the right direction.
The 2013 CNN Hero will be chosen December 1 and will receive $250,000 for their programs. To vote for Kakenya Ntaiya as hero of the year and to read about the other nominated heroes click here.
Toner, K. (2013, October 11). Woman challenges tradition, brings change to her Kenyan village. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/14/world/africa/cnnheroes-ntaiya-girls-school/index.html
Bloch, H. (2013, October 29) Kakenya ntaiya: bringing education to kenya’s girls. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131029-kakenya-ntaiya-kenya-cnn-hero-educating-girls-malala-yousafzai/?rptregcta=reg_free_nprptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_n1p_us_se_w#finished