This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
Kakenya Ntaiya has ambition to spare. She told me once, while we hiked together in Northern California, that she was counting on living a long life: She wanted enough time for 40 years of non-profit work, 40 years in government and 40 years enjoying retirement and the “grandmother years.” If anyone can will herself to live to be 120, Kakenya can.
Kakenya grew up the oldest of eight children in the Maasai village of Enoosaen in Southern Kenya. Engaged to be married when she was 5 years old, she was set to follow in the footsteps of many other girls from her village—leaving school at 13 to begin life as a wife and mother.
Instead, Kakenya bargained with her father, agreeing to undergo the local custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) if he allowed her to complete high school. He agreed, then, after high school she had to negotiate again—this time with her village elders to do what no girl had ever done before: leave her village to go to college in the United States. To win their approval, she promised to use her education to benefit her community. The elders approved and the entire village collected money to pay for Kakenya’s airfare to the U.S., where she had received a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia.
In her TEDTalk from October 2012 she tells what happened when she began learning as an undergraduate student about her own human rights:
I learned that the ceremony that I went through when I was 13 years old, it was called female genital mutilation. 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 [to learn]. And as we speak right now 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of going through this mutilation. I learned that my mom had a right to earn property. I learned that she did not have to be abused because she is a woman. Those things made me angry. I wanted to do something.
And she did do something. Kakenya went on to receive a PhD in education from the University of Pittsburgh. She was the first youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund, traveling around the world speaking on the importance of educating girls, and fighting the practices of female genital mutilation and child marriage. In 2013, she was one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes.
Today, Kakenya is the founder and president of the non-profit Kakenya’s Dream and the Kakenya Center for Excellence (KCE), a boarding school for girls in her hometown. KCE is the first primary school for girls in Enoosean. The main focus of both the organization and the school is to uphold the human rights of girls. In Enoosean this means working to end female genital mutilation, child marriage and early pregnancy. It means teaching girls about their bodies, including sex education and their right to be safe from FGM.
The fact that students and teachers live at the school is telling of the challenges that remain for girls. Boarding at the school means that girls have a safe place to live and study. They aren’t in danger of being raped on the way to school. They have the chance to form friendships with other girls who are also learning to set their own goals and changing their communities for the better.
Last spring, Kakenya and I were in California’s Bay Area where she was receiving an award from the Feminist Majority Foundation. We were hiking a hilly trail and talking on the way about the challenges that the girls in her school face, her own two boy children, and her life split between her husband in Virginia and her organization and school back in Kenya. I was 6 months pregnant and “leisurely” would have been a generous way to describe my walking pace. Kakenya, on the other hand, would—seemingly out of nowhere—take a deep breath and sprint up the steep hill. She would get to the top and run back to me, picking up the conversation right where she’d left off. I think that this somehow represents Kakenya: sprinting ahead, accomplishing things for herself and then turning around to come back for those behind her on the trail.