A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Why I’m impatient for girls’ education

4 min
Kakenya Ntaiya stands surrounded by a group of children from her organization, Kakenya's Dream
Courtesy of Kakenya's Dream
Kakenya’s story is an amazing tale of overcoming entrenched gender inequality. As part of this month’s “impatience” theme, we invited Kakenya to share the remarkable story of how she successfully challenged village tradition and insisted on an education for herself — and, later, for all girls in her community.

As a Maasai girl growing up in rural Kenya, my destiny was determined from birth. I was to follow the traditional path of becoming a young wife and mother after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) at puberty. This traditional rite of passage to womanhood would prepare me for marriage and mark an end to my education.
Young Maasai girls at a traditional village near Narok, some 105 miles west of Nairobi
Young Maasai girls at a traditional village near Narok, 105 miles west of Nairobi
Photo by Tony Karumba | Getty Images
You see, I was a girl, and a girl’s education, my education, was not a priority or a concern. I was to become a wife and mother. This was the path of all the women and girls I had ever known, but I did not want to take it.

Growing up, I was the oldest of eight children and spent my time helping my mother cook, clean, farm, and care for my siblings. It was a hard life. I dreamed of becoming a teacher, wearing nice shoes, and writing on a chalkboard instead of hauling water from the river and collecting firewood.
Kakenya Ntaiya stands in a classroom where students from Kakenya's Dream are studying.
Courtesy of Kakenya's Dream
Fighting for my education was the most critical decision of my life. It was something that no girl in my community had ever done, and it went against deep-rooted cultural norms. When I was 12, I told my father that I would only go through the FGM ceremony if I could continue with school afterward, rather than getting married as was expected. It was so important to him to have a daughter who was cut that he agreed to the arrangement. This conversation changed my entire life trajectory.

I finished high school and had to negotiate again, this time with my village elders. I wanted to go to college in the United States, but I would be the first girl from my village to ever do so and I needed the community’s help to get there. I promised them that if they gave me their support, I would return home and use my education to benefit the community. At first they resisted, saying that this opportunity should be given to a boy. But my persistence eventually paid off, and they sent me with their blessing.
I believe that every girl, no matter where she is born, deserves a chance to dream, learn, and achieve her full potential.
As I was experiencing a whole new world during my time in the United States, back home in my community, more girls I knew were dropping out of school, being married off, and suffering the consequences of FGM as they became young mothers. I heard tragic stories about the painful experiences they endured. I had forged a pathway to education for myself, and I decided that I needed to use that education to help other girls in my community.
Kakenya Ntaiya of Kakenya's dream delivers a TED Talk
Kakenya Ntaiya: A Girl Who Demanded School
Convinced that educating and empowering girls would be the best way to fulfill my promise to serve my community, I founded Kakenya’s Dream in 2008. I began the process with conversations. I talked with elders, parents, and community members, explaining my vision and listening to their feedback and concerns because I wanted the community’s support. I opened my first school in 2009 without any buildings. I didn’t care if the girls had to spend their first year learning outdoors in the shade of trees rather than in classrooms. I couldn’t wait any longer to begin.

Today, Kakenya’s Dream reaches thousands of girls in and around my community each year through three holistic programs. My name, Kakenya, means “dawn” in the Maasai language, and I believe it foreshadowed my destiny. In my work, I seek to bring a new day for girls in rural Kenya. I believe that every girl, no matter where she is born, deserves a chance to dream, learn, and achieve her full potential.