Creating dreams: The girl who demanded education

When Kakenya Ntaiya was told she couldn’t go to school, she refused to take ‘no’ for an answer

"A new beginning is happening," says Kakenya Ntaiya, the inspirational educator who is changing the lives of girls in Kenya. 

In her home village of Enoosaen, Kakenya has built a school for girls that protects them from the Maasai traditions of female circumcision and child marriage. As someone who endured female genital mutilation just so she could stay in school, Kakenya knows the sacrifices these girls have to make.

Kakenya, who is now in her mid-thirties, recently told her remarkable story in an uplifting talk at a Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference.

At the age of just five, Kakenya's life was mapped out for her by her Maasai community. A marriage had been arranged and when she became a teenager, she would be circumcised and then married. In the meantime, she focused on her education.  

"I went to school, not because the Maasai girls were going to school, but because my mother was denied an education," says Kakenya. "She constantly reminded me and my siblings that she never wanted us to live the life she was living."

That life was shared with an abusive husband. A policeman in the city, he would come home once a year, sell the family's produce and animals, and drink the money away. Any complaints would lead to a beating. 

Kakenya dreamed of becoming a teacher but as she reached year 9, she came to a crossroads. If she followed the traditional Maasai path and went through with the circumcision, she would have to forget all about continuing her education.

"I had to come up with a plan to figure these things out," she says. "I talked to my father, which is something most girls have never done. I told my father: 'I will only go through with the ceremony if you let me go back to school.'"

Her father agreed and the ceremony went ahead, with an old blade and no anaesthetic. It was only thanks to the dedication of her mother, who brought a nurse to the village to treat Kakenya and her sisters, that there was no lasting damage.

"Three weeks later, I was healed and I was back in high school," adds Kakenya. "I was so determined to be a teacher now, so that I could make a difference in my family."

At high school, she got the chance to take her education even further, with a scholarship to study in the US at the Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia. But to get there, she needed the permission of the men in the village.

"They said: 'What a lost opportunity. This should have been given to a boy. We can't do this,'" she recalls.

Kakenya refused to give up and took her case to the village elders. She triumphed and left to study in the US. Being in America was an incredible experience and opened her eyes to some elements of her upbringing in Enoosaen. 

"I learned that the ceremony I went through when I was 13 years old was called female genital mutilation," she says. "I learned that it was against the law in Kenya.  

"I learned that I did not have to trade part of my body to get an education. I had a right, and as I speak right now, three million girls in Africa are at risk of undergoing this mutilation. Those things made me angry. I wanted to do something."

So she returned to her village and built a school for girls. For the 125 pupils currently going through her academy, life will be different.

"One hundred and twenty-five girls will never be mutilated," says Kakenya. "One hundred and twenty-five girls will not be married when they're 12 years old. One hundred and twenty-five girls are creating and achieving their dreams." 

Those girls will teach the importance of education to their children and start a ripple effect, which can change girls' lives all over Kenya and the world.   

"We believe that we are impacting one girl, one family, one village, one country at a time," Kakenya concludes. "We are making a difference. If you do that and I do that, aren't we going to create a better future?" 

Life has changed for an entire community, and it all started with a girl.

Tell us your stories of inspirational girls who are making a difference on Facebook or Twitter

Watch Kakenya Ntaiya's TED talk in full

Read UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's views on education for girls

Photo courtesy of The Advocacy Project