While most American girls finger-painted in their Mary Janes, Kakenya Ntaiya prepared for marriage in rural Kenya.
At age five, Ntaiya knew who her future husband was; at age 12, she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), in preparation for marriage. Often unheard of, she negotiated with her father to allow her to return to high school after undergoing FGM.
Several years later, Ntaiya broke away from the traditional path again and did what no girl from her community had ever done: leave the village to go to college in the United States. She eventually went on to earn her Doctorate in Education from the University of Pittsburgh.
In short, Kakenya’s Dream began with herself.
After Ntaiya achieved her own education goals, she decided to go back to Kenya and give back to her rural community by redefining what girls’ lives should look like.
So, in 2009, she started a school where girls could be girls, not wives.
“We tell them, ‘You have a brain. You’re a child. You can jump rope,’” Ntaiya said during a Feb. 26 talk at the Ms. Magazine and Feminist Majority Foundation office in Los Angeles. “It’s about changing the norms.”
The school began without a building or a classroom, with Ntaiya teaching 13 girls under a tree.
Now, a decade later, Kakenya’s Dream calls their all-girls boarding schools “Centers for Excellence,” with one campus running and another almost fully built. The organization also educates Kenyan boys and girls through Health and Leadership Trainings and the Network for Excellence—which provides support to young girls so they may keep pursuing education and, eventually, career goals.
By educating kids through these three different programs, Ntaiya has touched and united the entire community.
“In order to empower a girl, you truly have to bring everybody on board,” Ntaiya said. “You have to bring the whole village, literally, to create support for a girl.”
When starting this endeavor, Ntaiya struggled to garner support from her conservative town. She practiced patience and listened to the people who opposed her so they could, slowly but surely, work together for the betterment of the community—despite its long-standing discriminatory traditions.
As the school grew more successful, the town’s families became more open to the idea of sending their daughters to a boarding school that prohibits FGM.
Kakenya’s Dream’s educational programs are holistic: In addition to teaching young women academics, the school also tackles issues like safety and health. The Center for Excellence’s faculty and staff nurture their students in the safe boarding school environment—and the girls continue to receive guidance even after they graduate. This consistent, multifaceted approach to support prevents students from losing sight of their future goals.
A recipient of a Feminist Majority Foundation Global Women’s Rights Award, Ntaiya ensured that the educational resources are locally run, which helps uplift and strengthen the vulnerable rural town.
The challenges Ntaiya faces motivate her to remain persistent and continue her work in education.
“I’ve been inspired by having a village of people who have pushed me, challenged me, and believed in me,” Ntaiya said.
She encourages helping the academic and lifestyle pursuits of Kenyan youth, as the younger generations will soon be the world’s leaders.
“Think about the girls, think about the change we are making, and invest in them, because I think the future is for young people, and that’s what we need to do,” Ntaiya said.