Life for Kakenya Ntaiya was supposed to follow the traditional path. Engaged at age 5, she was to be circumcised by the time she was a teenager, an event that would mark the end of her education and the beginning of her preparations for marriage. But Kakenya had a different plan. First, she negotiated with her father: she would be circumcised only if she could also finish high school. He agreed. Then she negotiated with the village elders to do what no girl had ever done: leave her Maasai village of Enoosaen in south Kenya to go to college in the United States. She promised that she would use her education to benefit Enoosaen. The entire village collected money to pay for her journey.
Kakenya received a scholarship to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. The girl who grew up without electricity wrote papers on international relations and political science on the computers in the university library. She went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her Doctorate in Education in 2011. While completing her studies in the U.S., she married and had two children.
As an undergraduate, she became the first youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund. In that capacity, she traveled around the world as a passionate advocate for girls’ education, which she sees as a crucial tool for fighting the practices of female genital mutilation and child marriage.
Kakenya is now fulfilling her promise to her community. As the founder and president of Kakenya Center for Excellence, a girls’ primary boarding school in Enoosaen, Kenya, Kakenya believes that education will empower and motivate young girls to become agents of change in their community and country. The Center opened its doors in May 2009 and currently has 170 students in grades four through eight. It has become a beacon of hope to the girls and parents in Enoosaen.
In 2013 Kakenya was honored with the Global Women’s Right Award from the Feminist Majority Foundation, was recognized by Women in the World as a “Woman of Impact” and named a Top Ten CNN Hero. Kakenya was honored with a Vital Voices Global Leadership award in 2008 and as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2010. She was named as one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World” in 2011 and was counted among the Women Deliver 100: The Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women. Her story has been the subject of a Washington Post series, a BBC documentary, and many magazine articles