african girls school

Education is often taken for granted in the Western world, especially in an age where teachers are restricted by the national curriculum which allows very little room for independent thought or alternative ways of thinking.

Indeed one of the main criticisms of education in much of the Western world is that it is designed to produce obedient workers who will not question the system or the current status quo in any way.

But in some countries, education can be used to empower people – especially women – and give them the kind of lifestyle and independence that they may never otherwise have been able to acquire.

For Kakenya Ntaiya, education not only allowed her to fulfill her dreams as a woman growing up in a rural village in Kenya, it also enabled her to fulfill the dreams of hundreds of other women as well.

Ntaiya was a member of the Maasai tribe located in Enoosaen, a small village in western Kenya.

The Maasai tribe are a tall, proud people and travellers from all over the world come to visit them.

From an early age, they are taught to be warriors and they can be recognised by the special red cloth they wear which is called a Shuka.

But in the Maasai culture, only 11 per cent of girls ever finish primary school and none of the girls in her village were destined for an education or career. Instead from an early age, they are taught how to be good wives.

At the age of five, her parents informed her that she was engaged and that she would be married when she was older.

Often she was required to get up at five in the morning with her mother, sweep the floors, and help to rear the animals at the farm.

But her mother would always take pains to remind her that she should strive for an education and not to live the life she did.

Her mother, was the victim of domestic violence, and despite working hard to rear animals, her father on the times when he was home from his work as a policeman would often sell the animals and go drinking with his friends – women didn’t have the right to own property.

As a child, Ntaiya dreamed of working in a school and teaching other young girls about the value of education and independence. At the age of 12 – sometimes younger –  girls are often forced to undergo genital mutilation – as a rite of passage into womanhood.

This painful procedure is based upon religious and social customs designed to prevent premarital sex and marital infidelity.

Many die in the process. It was a process that Ntaiya was to go through, which left her bleeding for days on end.

After that ceremony, many Maasai girls are then made to leave school and marry.

But Ntaiya had other plans. She decided to negotiate with her father and agreed to go through the ceremony – only if she was allowed to finish school. Her father agreed.

During school, she met a man who had travelled to the USA to study and was inspired to do the same. He gave her advice on how she could follow in his footsteps. That inspired her to work as hard as she possibly could to get a scholarship to study in the US – which she did. There was one problem however…in order to raise funds she had to convince not only her father but her entire village to let her go. In the Maasai culture, a village in an extension of the family. It was not just a question of convincing her parents – but her 15 village elders – all men.

One by one, she visited them all and promised that she would give something back to the village if they helped her to raise enough money to travel to America.

They agreed, and she then went on to become one of the top students in her year. But she wasn’t finished yet. Determined to fulfil her promise to give something back to the village, she returned to negotiate once again with her village elders. After speaking with the women about what they needed in her village, she decided to build a school – for girls. The idea was initially rejected by her elders who thought that it would be more practical and “less of a waste” to build a school for the men in the village but after pointing out that this should be the responsibility of the men who had travelled abroad to get scholarships, they agreed to give her the responsibility of building a girls school.

The result was that hundreds of girls have been educated at the school since 2009. The school caters to 125 girls at any one time.

Ntayiya has since gone on to do motivational talks all over the world, and has inspired both men and women everywhere.

One of the most famous speeches she did was at the TEDtalk in California – a global set of conferences designed to spread innovative ideas and concepts.

At these talks a range of ideas are often presented on science and culture, among other topics. Past presenters of the talks include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Richard Dawkins, as well as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, plus many Nobel Prizewinners.

The current curator of the talks is British former computer journalist and magazine publisher Chris Anderson.

As Ntaiya says: “A new dawn is happening at my school. A new beginning is happening. 125 girls will never be mutilated. 125 girls will not be married when they are 12 years old. 125 girls are creating and achieving their dreams. This is the thing that we are doing – giving them opportunities. Women are not being beaten because of the revolution we have started in our communities.”

Not only has she managed to fulfil her own lifelong dream of becoming not just a local teacher – but in many ways, a global one, she had one last final bit of inspiration to offer others.

At the TEDtalk She said: “I want to challenge you today. I want to challenge you to be the first because somebody will follow you. Be bold! Stand up, be fearless, be confident and move out. As you change your world, as you change your community, and believe that you are impacting one girl, one family, one village in the country, at a time, we are making a difference. But if you change your world, you are going to change your community, you are going to change your country, and think about that. Think: Can I do that? Aren’t we going to create a better future for our children, for your children, for our grandchildren? Then we will live in a very beautiful world.”

While female circumcision and child marriage are now illegal in Kenya, new laws banning genital mutilation have contributed to a decline in the practice, although it still occurs in some rural settings. Women also have the right to own property in the country – and many do go on to get an education, although for many of those living remotely in the country, cultural traditions are still dominant.

But stories like Ntaiya prove that when given the opportunity to thrive, and fulfil their dreams, it is possible to bring about change in the face of adversity with intelligent negotiation and give hope to others who may not be privy to the same opportunities.

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