Kakenya Ntaiya: Making Dreams of Education a Reality for Girls Everywhere

08/03/2016 09:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women and men from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight unspoken, real-life insights on how they have been able to turn weakness into strength. A naked soul point of view of how their breakdowns were really a preparation for breakthroughs. They are your quintessential paradigm shifters; internal shifts converted into genuine change.

Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because, "What we think determines what we feel and what we feel determines what we do." Hence, why Empowered by You takes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and redirected that energy as a tool of empowerment.

I hope from these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens. At the very least you will be more equipped with real life tools to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day, we are our own Alchemist turning the silver we were born with into the gold we are destined to become.

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Kakenya Ntiaya, PhD- founder and president of the Kakenya Center for Excellence

Were you intimidated by the men in your village?
I don't think I ever thought about it. When you live in something you don't think about it. I was the first of eight children. As a result, I didn't really have time to reflect on what was around me. That is how girls are there--you get married, then you have children. You never really question it. I knew that I wanted something different. So, instead of focusing on being intimidated, I focused on education. I focused on going to school and making sure I stayed there.

Did you have a Role model?
My Mother, in a way, was my role model. I wanted to become what she was not. Now I have so many role models that I follow! But when I was young, all I knew is that I didn't want to live the life my mother was living. I wanted a job. I wanted to be working. The hardship and hard life that my mother --and girls in general-- faced inspired and motivated me to have a life different than that.

Did other girls desire a life outside marriage like you?
Some girls did want to have the life I wanted. They wanted to go to school like me and they would do really well in class. But as we grew older --and when I talk about older I mean as I got to be 7 or 8 --the people who became my friends were all male. That was because around that age all the girls were talking about FGM and getting married. The boys would talk about passing an exam. Because all my friends were boys, many of the girls were resentful towards me and bullied me. They would question why I wasn't interested in the things they were. But I chose to go to school.

How do you feel towards your father?
Well, my dad passed away about 15 years ago. I am very grateful to him because he actually let me go to school. Even though I had to go through FGM to go to school, he stood by his word and let me continue going. I would not be here today if he hadn't said yes. I would've been married away and my life would not have been the same. After high school I had a good relationship with my dad. He was very trusting towards me and I cherish the relationship I got to have with him.

Your view of FGM?
FGM is seen as what makes you respected and what makes you a woman. If you go through the cut, you're no longer a child. It gives you status. The children and younger kids respect you. There's a very high value that becomes attached to you when you go through the cut. Before undergoing FGM, you don't hear anything about the pain. It is only glorified. The people of the village tell you, "You become a woman, you become respected, you get married, and you're called a mother." It's such a big deal, because that respect and title are what everyone wants. They don't tell you what exactly happens in the cutting.

What was your view after undergoing FGM?
You're never given a chance to talk about FGM after you go through with it. The culture does not allow you to do that. I've broken that rule! But you really cannot talk about it; it's like Fight Club. And most of the time you wouldn't even get the chance. Women and girls would go through FGM and get married right away. Once you're married you have to start having children and then having to feed those children. The women become so busy and overwhelmed that they forget about what they went through. There's no time for reflection. You now have this husband and he probably beats you and you don't have food, so you become focused on that.

Why did you want to be a teacher?
Initially, I just wanted a job to have money to take care of my mother and support myself. It wasn't about opening a school for girls. It was like, "What are the jobs that will make money?" But, when the news came that I had a chance to go to college and needed money, I had to go to people's homes and talk to people, which is something I never had time to do before. This really exposed me to the reality of my village. I realized that it was not just my home that was struggling. Even the homes I thought were doing better were still very poor. You see these girls going to school one day and being married off the next. I felt bad and I knew if I could make a difference, I would. It's not just my village-- it's the whole world. I needed to do something and I needed to start from home. That is why I am in this work now.

Are men's perceptions changing?
Oh yeah, the perception is changing. There's a saying, "You educate a girl, you educate a village" but no one ever saw this until I came back. So many men had been sent off to universities and had never come back. The one girl they educated and sent to the US came back. When I came back I didn't just give back to my home, but to the whole community. I have shown them that if you educate a girl, she will come back and make a positive impact in the community. This expectation has set a very high bar for the girls at my school. They're expected to be like me, which is tough. But now there are a lot of men supporting our school and educating girls. Even though some of the girls can't come to my school the men now are still sending their girls to a school.

How do the older women view it?
The women are also supportive. But they don't know what to do. They're worried their daughters are not going to be marriage material. The girls who come to our school do not go through FGM and they are required to go to high school. Because the concentration has shifted from marriage to education, the constant worry from the parents is 'will they get married?' I tell them, "The first thing is if you want her to get married, where will she get married?" Marriage was valued by how much land the husband had and the women would end up working the field and receive an income for their family from how much crop they produced. The way out of this hard life is education. But with their education they can go places beyond the village. Their future is so much less predictable. So the parents don't know the future, they don't know if their children will get married, but what keeps them with us is their thin hope that their children do get married and come back with a husband and have children.

Your view on marriage?
Everywhere you go they sell marriage as the ultimate thing for a woman, but not for a man. It's okay for a man not to be married at forty, but not for a woman. I do not support that. I got married when I was twenty-nine and there was so much pressure from my mother and from my aunt. They were like, "Oh, you're so old. You're not going to have children." But you have to make the decision yourself and that is where we have to educate our women and girls. If you want to get married, you can get married. You have to choose to whom you get married and when the right time is. Marriage is a lot of work. But there is no pressure, the time will come, and there are a lot of men out there!

Advantages to educating a girl?
The moment the girls enter our doors, they find a community that is caring and tells them whatever you want to become in life is possible. One of the bigger hurdles of educating these girls is undoing the damage that the community has ingrained in their minds, especially concerning marriage and jobs. But when you give a girl an opportunity, she will never, ever embarrass you or let you down. It's a school, but it's also a home. Even when they're eating at home they're malnourished. Just by looking at their faces you can tell they're not having balanced meals. At our school we make sure they have a balanced meal. We want to nourish them--their bodies and souls. We have teachers who really focus on them and believe in them. When I went to school they viewed me as the one who wasn't smart. When we give these girls attention they do really, really well. We compete with about five hundred schools in our county and our school is in the top five. These girls are not thinking about themselves, but others. They go home and educate their little sisters. They are devoted to learning and devoted to giving back.

Breakdown to breakthrough moment?
When I began the process of making this school in 2006, the people who could help me were all men. They had this perception of me that I was this wealthy woman. At the time I was a graduate student, which, as you know, meant I was broke. I had never built a school; I had never built anything. I was receiving all this pressure to send the money--I hadn't even raised the money! In the process of opening the school I learned a lot about class. The people at the top didn't want to mingle with us. They thought they knew everything and thought we knew nothing. I had a really hard time because I was a woman, and to them I wasn't just a woman, but also a child. They kept referring to me as a child and wouldn't let me speak. I would have a meeting and then find out an hour later that they had a meeting against me. It was an incredibly aggravating experience. Then I just decided to start the school on my own, because planning with the community was just not working. I started and a hundred students came. I thought we were going to have fifteen! At that moment all my prior frustrations went out the door. I said to myself, "Okay, I'm here and I'm going to make sure as many of the girls can get in as possible." So we started this school and took thirty girls. At the time I was also working on my PhD as well as having a baby, so all the wrong things were happening at the wrong time. And the community was laughing at me, thinking "What is this girl doing?!" There were all these negative forces about me. But seven or eight years later everyone wants to be a part of it and everyone wants to come to my school. I could've easily given up but I didn't. All my breakdowns are breakthroughs. I believe I need them in order to push through.

Legacy?
I want to make leaders. At one point I wanted to run for president in Kenya. To do that you need be a member in parliament and move up the ladder. In college, I did international studies and political science so I was very familiar with politics. In Kenya we do have the policy that requires the government to have women in every position. Part of me likes it but part of me recognizes that they are not respecting the women in those positions. They're giving them this position so they will be quiet. If you have that seat, that's it. You have no money, no voice, and ultimately no power. You're just there because it's required. I want to be there because I am the voice that is needed. I would love to run for office but I think it would be so much more powerful and effective if I made many women leaders. So in twenty, thirty years from now in every office there is a woman leader that Kakenya made.

Kakenya exemplifies a rebel with a cause. She disregarded any hurdles and any conditions that might impose on her and continued to work and fight for her beliefs. Kakenya will most certainly create and inspire some of our future's brightest leaders. She illustrates the power of will and our capability to achieve anything we put our mind to.