Can One Girl Challenge The Traditions Of Her Village?

Jan 3, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 5:28 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Overcoming.

About Kakenya Ntaiya's TED Talk

Kakenya Ntaiya tells the fearless story of challenging ingrained traditions, insisting on continuing school, and becoming the first girl to leave her Maasai village for college.

About Kakenya Ntaiya

Kakenya Ntaiya was set to follow the traditional path of Maasai girls in Kenya — to assume the role of a young wife. But she had a different plan. She not only convinced her father to continue high school, but she negotiated with village elders to attend college in the U.S. Later Ntaiya returned to her village to establish a school for girls. The Kakenya Center for Excellence started in 2009 with 32 students, and focuses on academics, leadership and female empowerment.

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So imagine your whole life planned out for you against your will from the moment you're born. That's how Kakenya Ntaiya's life began in a Masai village in Kenya.


KAKENYA NTAIYA: When I was 5 years old, I found out that I was engaged to be married as soon as I reached puberty. My mother, my grandmother, my aunties, they constantly reminded me that - your husband just passed by. Cool, yeah? And everything I had to do from that moment was to prepare me to be a perfect woman at age 12. My day started at 5 in the morning milking the cows, sweeping the house, cooking for my siblings, collecting water, firewood. I did everything that I needed to do to become a perfect wife.

RAZ: But that life never really seemed like the right fit for Kakenya. She didn't want to be just the perfect wife. She wanted something more than that.


NTAIYA: When I went to school, I had a dream. I wanted to become a teacher. I worked hard in school. But when I was in eighth grade, in our tradition, there's a ceremony that girls have to undergo to become women. And it's a rite of passage to womanhood. This was the crossroad. Once I go through this tradition, I was going to become a wife. Well, my dream of becoming a teacher will not come to pass. I had to come up with a plan to figure these things out. I talked to my father. I did something that most girls have never done.

I told my father, I will only go through this ceremony if you let me go back to school. The reason why, if I ran away, my father will have a stigma. People will be calling him the father of that girl who didn't go through the ceremony. It was a shameful thing for him to carry the rest of his life. So he figured out, well, he said, OK. You'll go to school after the ceremony.

RAZ: OK, now this next part of Kakenya's TED Talk, I should mention, is a bit hard to listen to. But it's also really important because you have to know what she went through to understand how amazing her story actually is.


NTAIYA: And the day before the actual ceremony happens, we were dancing, having excitement, and through all the night we did not sleep. The actual day came, and we walk out of the house that we were dancing. As we danced the danced, we walked out to the courtyard and there were a bunch of people waiting. They were all in a circle. And as we danced and danced, and we approached this circle of women - men, women, children, everybody was there - there was a woman sitting in the middle of it. And this woman was waiting to hold us. I was the first. There were my sisters and a couple of other girls. And as I approached her, she looked at me, and I sat down. And I sat down, and I opened my legs.

As I opened my leg, another woman came. And this woman was carrying a knife. And as she carried the knife, she walked toward me. And she held my clitoris, and she cut it off. After bleeding for a while, I fainted thereafter. It's something that so many girls - I'm lucky I never died, but many die. I was lucky because one, also, my mom did something that most women don't do. Three days later after everybody has left the home, my mom went and brought a nurse. We were taken care of. Three weeks later, I was healed, and I was back in high school. I was so determined to be a teacher now so that I can make a difference in my family.

RAZ: It would be a few years until Kakenya would actually get her chance. And it happened when she met an older boy in the village who had been to university in the U.S. And Kakenya convinced him to help her apply to Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia. That was a long shot, but she got in.

NTAIYA: It was a thing that you don't even imagine it would ever happen. But I did get the admission to Randolph-Macon Women's College then. And it was like, wow, it's real. It's actually happening.

RAZ: And you knew nothing about this place, right? You knew absolutely nothing. It was just - it was in America.

NTAIYA: Somewhere that I didn't know it was.


NTAIYA: And I couldn't come without the support of the village 'cause I needed to raise money to buy the air ticket. I got a scholarship, but I needed to get myself here. But I needed the support of the village. And here again, when the men heard and the people heard that a woman had gotten an opportunity to go to school, they said, what a lost opportunity. This should have been given to a boy. We can't do this. And in the village, also, this one chief, or an elder, who has - if he says yes, everybody will follow him.

So I went to him very early in the morning as the sun rise. The first thing he sees when he wakes, opens his door is, it's me. My child, what are you doing here? Well, Dad, I need help. Can you support me to go to America? I promised him that I will be the best girl. I will come back. Anything they wanted after that, I will do it for them.

RAZ: Did you feel the weight of your village on your shoulders, like you had to - you had to succeed?

NTAIYA: I think for me it was more about - I wanted to do something for people in my village. So...

RAZ: Did you know what that was going to be?

NTAIYA: I never knew what it was going to be, but I knew that the life, especially women were living, is not the right one. I felt that I had to be the gate to really bring change to the way women live and the way girls are seen. And I didn't know how, but I just wanted to do something.


NTAIYA: During that moment while I was here, I discovered a lot of things. I learned that that ceremony that I went through when I was 13 years old, it was called female genital mutilation. I learned that it was against the law in Kenya. I learned that I did not have to trade part of my body to get an education. I had a right. Those things made me angry.

RAZ: This was all obviously incredibly upsetting. I mean, imagine learning all these things after the fact. And Kakenya initially just thought, how could it be? But then she started to think. She started to wonder whether she could take that knowledge, that information, and give it to the girls in her village.


NTAIYA: As I went back, I had started talking to the men, to the village and mothers. And I said, I want to give back the way I had promised you that I would come back and help you. What do you need? As I speak to the women, they told me, you know what we need? We really need a school for girls because there had not been any school for girls. And the reason they wanted the school for girls is because when a girl is raped when she's walking to school, the mother is blamed for that. If she got pregnant before she got married, the mother is blamed for that, and she's punished. She's beaten. They said we wanted to put our girls in a safe place.

As we moved and I went to talk to the fathers, the fathers, of course - you can imagine what they said - we want a school for boys. And I said, well, there are a couple of men from my village who have been out, and they have got an education. Why can't they build a school for boys, and I'll build a school for girls? That made sense, and they agreed. And I told them I wanted them to show me a sign of commitment. And they did. They donated land where we built the girls school we have.

RAZ: So a few years ago, the chief of her village told Kakenya, there's no need to educate girls because they are for marriage. And today, he's a member of the school's board. It's called the Kakenya Center for Excellence. And it's open to girls from age 8 to 14. And right now, about 150 girls attend, and not a single girl was mutilated or married off early. In fact, Kakenya worked with the tribal elders to make sure they stop circumcising girls, and the practice ended. Do you think those girls who are now 14 years old at the school that you founded, that are going to go off to high school, they may have the same experience you had? They may go to the U.S. or to Europe to go to university.

NTAIYA: Those girls, they will go anywhere in the world. They're leaders already. They're not afraid. As I tell them always, there's no limit to what they can achieve. And so some will go to America, some will go to Europe, some will go to India. Whatever they go to, they're ready. And I tell the girls that I have in my school that, yes, you might be orphaned, you might be disabled, or you might be - doesn't matter your background. What matters is what you take from the opportunity you're given, where you go with that.


NTAIYA: I want to challenge you today that to be the first because people will follow you. Be bold. Stand up. Be fearless. Be confident. Move out because as you change your world, you're going to change a community. You're going to change your country, and think about that, If you do that - and I do that - aren't we going to create a better future for our children, for your children, for our grandchildren, and we will live in a very peaceful world. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Kakenya Ntaiya. By the way, she never did marry that boy from the village. She did get married to another Kenyan man who she met in the U.S. You should check out her full talk at


RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on overcoming this week. If you missed any of it, or you want to hear more, or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit You can also find many more TED Talks at And you can download this entire program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.