When Kakenya was ten years old, she didn't have time to think about the future. Her days were endless: as soon as she came home from school she had to milk the cows and take them to pasture, bring water from the river, collect the firewood, clean the house, take care of her younger sisters and cook for them. She was too worried about what to eat for supper to think about anything else: the future, she would say later, is a luxury that only rich societies can indulge in.
Nevertheless, even if she had thought of it, she could never have imagined her present life at the University of Pittsburgh, in the USA, where she is enrolled in a postgraduate programme in education.
Kakenya Ntaiya was born in Enoosaen, a Masai village in the south of Kenya in June 1978, but she doesn't know on which day: her mother can't remember. The Masai have always been a society of semi-nomadic warriors and shepherds who have lately established themselves in villages; 400.000 people, half of their total population, lives in Kenya. The Masai raise goats and sheep, but cows are their most valuable possession: they live off the milk and blood, only killing them on very special occasions.
In Enoosaen there has never been running water or electricity; Kakenya's house was an adobe hut made of straw, manure and cow urine, just like the others. Kakenya can't recall when she started working: she had always worked. When she was five years old, her parents promised her hand in marriage to a six-year old neighbour. This is the Masai custom and thus everybody in the village spoke of them as a couple; they played together, herded the cows together and called each other husband and wife. Many years later, Kakenya would say that she was lucky even to have met her future husband: often, Masai girls are introduced to their spouses the very day of the wedding.
Her life was decided: Kakenya would get married, have children, take care of the cows, work the land. In those days, she didn't even know that other kinds of lives existed. Seen from her perspective, the world was a small and homogeneous place.
Yet she was uneasy and afraid: her mother worked non-stop and her father spent long stretches away from home, working as a policeman in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. It was worse when he got back: he hit her mother and sold their cows. In those desperate moments, her mother would say she wished her daughter's life could be different. The only way of changing it was to get an education, so Kakenya studied all she could.
When Kakenya was eleven, somebody arrived in town. Morompi Ole-Ronkei was a twenty-something neighbour who had the qualifications and the money to study in the USA. It was a revelation. Morompi had a camera, jeans, sneakers, a satisfied smile; he told stories about a country where everybody was rich, had sunglasses and several cars, and the machines did all the work. Kakenya was fascinated -a brand new world was opened to her. So she doubled her efforts at school: now her goal was set. When she got to high school, Kakenya was one of the only two girls in a class full of boys.
In her community, girls are not supposed to do those things. They have to get married, and to do so, first they must be circumcised. Kakenya managed to postpone that moment for two or three years, and kept studying. But when she turned fifteen her father told her she couldn't wait any longer. Female genital cutting - emuratisho - would mark her entrance into adult life: the moment of quitting school and getting married. Kakenya took a firm stand and negotiated: she would only do it if she were allowed to finish high school. She insisted so much that her father promised her this in front of the men of the village. According to tradition, such a promise must be kept, and Kakenya knew how to use tradition in her favour.
Many Masai girls look forward to the cutting with great enthusiasm. They have heard so much about it, about the moment in which their real lives will begin.
But nobody tells us what they're actually going to do to us: we only know there's going to be a big party, and we're going to be the centre of attention. And it is a beautiful party: a whole week of singing and dancing and banquets. Until one morning they take you to the cow corral and right there, in front of everybody, a grandmother comes and does it to you. You feel this horrible pain but you can't cry: ever since you're a little girl, they tell you you can't cry. And once it's over, you can't talk about it with anyone.
"Young women migrate for university education abroad, but to a much lesser extent than their male peers, because of cultural norms that restrict their mobility."
Even now, as she remembers, Kakenya's face darkens. She says she feels that absent part of her body every single day and that she's going to spend her life trying to eradicate that custom. Every year, about two million women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East risk female genital mutilation. Generally, the operation is done under very risky conditions, with no antiseptic, nor proper surgical instruments.
Kakenya finished high school with very good grades. It was time to get married, to stop being Kakenya. In her society, when a girl gets married, she becomes her husband's property. The Masai girl's birth name lasts until her wedding day; on that day, the groom and his friends choose another name for her, which she'll use for the rest of her life. It is difficult to think of a more extreme exercise of power.
I'm Kakenya, and I'll be Kakenya till the day I die!
So she says now, many years later. But to accomplish that, she had to flee her homeland.
I wish we didn't have to escape from our homelands to be what we want to be. If I would have stayed, I would have been forced to marry, have children, to live the life they wanted, not my own. I had to leave in order to keep being myself.
Kakenya went looking for Morompi and asked him to help her find a university in the United States.
Why the United States?
Because I didn't know of any other place.
After a lot of paperwork, a small university for women, Randolph-Macon in Virginia, admitted her. But the difficult part was the money. Kenya has thirty-five million inhabitants, half of them under the poverty line. For months Kakenya worked to convince the women and men in her village that a girl could do what so few boys had done. She promised them she would come back to set up a school and a maternity hospital, and install running water. She also promised she would come back alone: she wouldn't marry a stranger. In the beginning, they said no, a woman can't go anywhere, she needs to respect her elders and stay where she is.
In the end, thanks to her persuasiveness and insistence, Kakenya got the authorisation of the old men in the village and a little money. At the beginning of 2000 she travelled to Nairobi: there she saw, for the first time in her life, an apartment building, a television set. A few days later, she got on a plane to cross the Atlantic. When the flight took off she was crying tears of happiness because she had made it.
Kakenya was so lost: it's hard to imagine a journey more radical than hers. At Randolph-Macon she was received with enthusiasm, affection and an extraordinary blizzard. Kakenya couldn't believe that snow would fall from the sky, nor that her classmates would take their mattresses to use them as sleds. She was discovering, at the same time, two peculiar aspects of Western culture: something as valuable as a mattress can be spoiled for the sake of fun, and even adult women still think about playing.
Her first year in college was not easy. She felt overwhelmed and all she thought about was going back home.
When I got my first computer, I was frightened to death. I thought that if I pressed any button, the thing was going to explode. Electricity scared me a lot.
Eventually she adapted, and managed to graduate with very good grades. But at the same time, Kakenya discovered that Americans ate raw vegetables "just like animals," that they walked too fast, that they smiled without a reason, that everybody wanted to look young, that not everybody was rich and that money didn't grow on trees. Life in the United States could be very hard work too.
Kakenya has been living in the United States for more than five years now and she learned to say she's Kenyan, not Masai. Kakenya says repeatedly that her heart is in her village, but the two times she returned, one of them for her father's burial, she felt uncomfortable: she's not like them anymore.
At home, Kakenya did all she could. She was kind to everyone and she tried to integrate. She didn't use American clothes so as not to make them jealous. But the Enoosaen water made her sick, she couldn't carry the firewood, and everyone made her feel the difference. Some people praised her, others were jealous, and still others seemed to regard her with all kinds of suspicions. And many asked her for money because anyone who lives in America has to be rich. Kakenya knows she is not American, and she's afraid of being stuck in the middle, which is to say nowhere.
They don't know, they imagine everything is easy here. And every day I think, Oh God, I owe them so much, I made them so many promises.
Here in the United States, she says, she has a good time and learns a lot, but she never stops feeling guilty: she can't remember a day in which she thought, Oh, I'm so happy. And often she misses the time when the future was not an issue, when she did not spend her days and nights thinking how to improve her village's situation. Those days when she'd fall into bed and sleep would come without her even noticing. Now she knows so many more things about the world, she says, she worries so much more and she can't stop thinking about what she can do to help people be happy without having to leave their homeland behind. She wants to contribute to bring such a world into existence, though she doesn't know how. For the moment, what she has most faith in is education.
Education is the key to everything. Getting an education opened so many doors for me that I want to prepare myself as much as I can to improve education in my country.
So says Kakenya in the cold of Pittsburgh, her wool hat pulled down over her frozen ears, as she dreams of setting up a school in her homeland to educate women and girls, to convince them they don't need to be dominated by men, to reject genital cutting, to keep their names, to be what they want to be without having to leave home.
If the women of my homeland had access to education, they could choose what to do with their lives. And that would be a real change, and I would feel I had paid my debts.