A dream that lit a fire

When over 100 girls arrived eager to enrol on the first day that Kakenya Ntaiya opened her school, it dawned on her the magnitude of her dream.

This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the achievements of women across Kenya whose passion and determination are transforming the lives of women and girls.

Dr Kakenya Ntaiya grew up with a dream that was all her own. Engaged at the age of five, the future that was expected of her was marriage, motherhood and a life in her village. But as the world opened up to her through education, she began to dream for something different. She wanted to become a teacher and avoid the very hard life that her mother lived. Through skilful negotiation with her father and the village elders, Kakenya was permitted to finish high school, then leave Kenya for higher education in the US. In 2011, she achieved her doctorate in education.

And along the way, she founded Kakenya’s Dream to provide an education for children in her Maasai community. Kakenya’s Dream is a nonprofit organisation that leverages education to empower girls, end harmful traditional practices including female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, and transform communities in rural Kenya.

The Centers for Excellence, two girls’ boarding schools which are built on land donated by community elders, have educated over 600 girls. A separate program, the Health and Leadership Training program, provides a health and leadership educational series into partner schools. The program includes around six months of after-school workshops and has reached over 15,000 boys and girls in the region.

But Kakenya’s dream is bigger still, with a huge vision for Kenya’s young people. We wanted to know what inspired her to achieve all she has, and how women have been so instrumental to the success of Kakenya’s Dream.

Kakenya’s Dream has grown from a school with 30 students to bringing education to thousands. Did you ever imagine when you started Kakenya’s Dream that it would impact so many?
I really didn’t imagine when I started Kakenya’s Dream that it would have the impact that it has. On that very first day, I expected maybe ten girls would show up to enrol in my school. But when over 100 girls arrived eager to enrol, it dawned on me the magnitude of my dream and just how many girls I could help with enough resources, funding and support. I took as many girls as I could that first year, and it’s been my goal every year since to expand our programs to truly meet the extreme need in rural Kenya.

Today, Kakenya’s Dream is a full-fledged nonprofit organisation operating two girls’ boarding schools in addition to several other health and education programs for thousands of young people in rural Kenya. As proud as we are of this success, the reality is that there are still too many girls being forced to leave school, undergo FGM, and marry early. The demand for our life-changing programs still surpasses our capacity, so we are doing everything in our power to increase our funding and resources to support girls and transform communities across Kenya, and one day, we hope, across all of Africa.

What has been your most rewarding experience through Kakenya’s Dream?
We started off with a single class of fourth grade students in 2009. Back then, we had little funding and no buildings, and many individuals in my community still opposed my plan to educate and empower our girls. Those 30 pioneer students started their education in the shade of a tree as their classrooms were being built, and this year, against all odds, they are graduating from top colleges and universities around the world.  

Seeing my pioneer class complete a level of education that less than two per cent of women in my community are able to achieve has been one of the most rewarding experiences. 

It has also been a testament to the power of our holistic model. In addition to providing a world-class education, at Kakenya’s Dream our wraparound programs are designed to nurture and support the whole girl and all of her unique needs from childhood to adulthood. This, we believe, is the only way to truly empower girls to achieve their full potential.

Your mother has been very supportive of you. How does she feel about all you’ve achieved academically and with Kakenya’s Dream?
My mother is very proud of the work we are doing at Kakenya’s Dream and the lives we are changing. She has stepped in to act as a grandmother to all the girls in our programs, especially those who are orphans. She is part of the team that makes it happen for the girls and communities we serve. 

In your 2013 TED Talk, you said, “I had to do something.” And then you started Kakenya’s Dream. Do you know why you felt so strongly about this and so driven to take action?
I felt so compelled to help other Maasai girls because I knew exactly what trauma they would experience if I didn’t take action, and I had found a solution that truly worked. In my community FGM is believed to be a rite of passage that prepares girls for womanhood and marriage. Once they are married, they are forced to end their education, a move that all but ensures they will be trapped into a life of poverty that can continue on for generations.

This has been the way of life for women and girls in my community for centuries, but Kakenya’s Dream has changed this course by putting girls in school at the critical point in their lives when they are most at risk of FGM and early marriage. We provide for the full needs of every girl to remove that financial burden from the family which often pushes them to consider early marriage for their daughters. In addition to educating them, we also work to instill confidence and a sense of self-worth, encouraging them to dream and then providing the skills they need to pursue those dreams.

Through this approach, we have created a generation of prepared, empowered young women who are going on to support themselves and their families in ways that their bride prices from child marriages never could.

And not only are we directly protecting the girls in our programs from the violations of FGM and early marriage, we’re also breaking cycles of poverty that will benefit their future families for generations to come. 

I knew this solution would work because I had lived it. Education and empowerment had changed my entire life trajectory, so I knew firsthand the power it had to do the very same for other girls. As we put more girls on this path, slowly but surely we are changing the narrative about the value of girls and women and securing their place as leaders in Kenyan society.

What is the most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who has a dream to start, or is just launching, a non-profit organisation?
If your dream or mission is to create lasting social change, you must be willing to create or invest in long-term solutions. Change happens slowly and incrementally, so patience and a sustainable, future-oriented plan are crucial. Instant gratification is often the enemy of this kind of change because the reality is that short-term, temporary projects rarely create lasting and meaningful results. Think long term, be patient, you will fail, you will get back up, you will be frustrated by many, but keep going. The reward will come at some point in your journey. 

How have other women supported you to bring Kakenya’s Dream to life?
Women in the U.S. believed in my dream to educate and empower girls and helped me establish Kakenya’s Dream by giving financial support, opening up their homes, and introducing our work to their friends who kindly gave toward my vision too. 

Women in Kenya, especially those in the communities we work in who were not educated themselves, believed in my dream and brought their daughters to our school. They helped me pick the school uniform colors, they shared their stories with our girls and encouraged them to keep dreaming and to become something one day. They ensured their daughters did not go through FGM and early marriage. They saw them as a generation of women who are empowered to change the social norms that hurt women and girls in our community. They stood with me then and still stand with me today as we continue to work toward achieving my dream! 

What do you admire the most about Maasai women?
What I admire most about Maasai women is their strength. Women are the backbone of Maasai society. We build the very homes that our families live in, farm the land, raise the children, prepare the food we eat, start the fires we cook and warm ourselves with, and collect the water we drink. Despite being seen for centuries as nothing more than commodities to be traded for our bride prices, we persevere. We are resilient and strong in the face of impossible odds and obstacles, and I deeply admire it.

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