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There's a group of people in Kenya. People cross oceans to go see them. These people are tall. They jump high. They wear red. And they kill lions. You might be wondering, who are these people? These are the Maasais. And you know what's cool? I'm actually one of them.
The Maasais, the boys are brought up to be warriors. The girls are brought up to be mothers. When I was five 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. (Laughter) 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.
I went to school not because the Maasais' women or girls were going to school. It's because my mother was denied an education, and she constantly reminded me and my siblings that she never wanted us to live the life she was living. Why did she say that? My father worked as a policeman in the city. He came home once a year. We didn't see him for sometimes even two years. And whenever he came home, it was a different case. My mother worked hard in the farm to grow crops so that we can eat. She reared the cows and the goats so that she can care for us. But when my father came, he would sell the cows, he would sell the products we had, and he went and drank with his friends in the bars. Because my mother was a woman, she was not allowed to own any property, and by default, everything in my family anyway belongs to my father, so he had the right. And if my mother ever questioned him, he beat her, abused her, and really it was difficult.
When I went to school, I had a dream. I wanted to become a teacher. Teachers looked nice. They wear nice dresses, high-heeled shoes. I found out later that they are uncomfortable, but I admired it. (Laughter) But most of all, the teacher was just writing on the board -- not hard work, that's what I thought, compared to what I was doing in the farm. So I wanted to become a teacher.
I worked hard in school, but when I was in eighth grade, it was a determining factor. In our tradition, there is a ceremony that girls have to undergo to become women, and it's a rite of passage to womanhood. And then I was just finishing my eighth grade, and that was a transition for me to go to high school. 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. So I talked -- 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, "okay, you'll go to school after the ceremony."
I did. The ceremony happened. It's a whole week long of excitement. It's a ceremony. People are enjoying it. 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 walked out of the house that we were dancing in. Yes, we danced and 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 the clitoris, and she cut it off.
As you can imagine, I bled. I bled. After bleeding for a while, I fainted thereafter. It's something that so many girls -- I'm lucky, I never died -- but many die. It's practiced, it's no anesthesia, it's a rusty old knife, and it was difficult. 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 could make a difference in my family.
Well, while I was in high school, something happened. I met a young gentleman from our village who had been to the University of Oregon. This man was wearing a white t-shirt, jeans, camera, white sneakers -- and I'm talking about white sneakers. There is something about clothes, I think, and shoes. They were sneakers, and this is in a village that doesn't even have paved roads. It was quite attractive.
This gentleman, he helped me. While I was in high school also, my dad was sick. He got a stroke, and he was really, really sick, so he really couldn't tell me what to do next. But the problem is, my father is not the only father I have. Everybody who is my dad's age, male in the community, is my father by default -- my uncles, all of them -- and they dictate what my future is.
So the news came, I applied to school and I was accepted to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and I couldn't come without the support of the village, because 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."
So I went back and I had to go back to the tradition. There's a belief among our people that morning brings good news. So I had to come up with something to do with the morning, because there's good news in the morning. And in the village also, there is one chief, an elder, who if he says yes, everybody will follow him. So I went to him very early in the morning, as the sun rose. The first thing he sees when he opens his door is, it's me.
He said, "Well, but I can't do it alone." He gave me a list of another 15 men that I went -- 16 more men -- every single morning I went and visited them. They all came together. The village, the women, the men, everybody came together to support me to come to get an education.
I enjoyed myself, but 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. And as we speak right now, three million girls in Africa are at risk of going through this mutilation. I learned that my mom had a right to own property. I learned that she did not have to be abused because she is a woman. Those things made me angry. I wanted to do something. As I went back, every time I went, I found that my neighbors' girls were getting married. They were getting mutilated, and here, after I graduated from here, I worked at the U.N., I went back to school to get my graduate work, the constant cry of these girls was in my face. I had to do something.
As I spoke 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."
And I said, "Well, there are a couple of men from my village who have been out and they have gotten 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.
I want you to meet one of the girls in that school. Angeline came to apply for the school, and she did not meet any criteria that we had. She's an orphan. Yes, we could have taken her for that. But she was older. She was 12 years old, and we were taking girls who were in fourth grade. Angeline had been moving from one place -- because she's an orphan, she has no mother, she has no father -- moving from one grandmother's house to another one, from aunties to aunties. She had no stability in her life. And I looked at her, I remember that day, and I saw something beyond what I was seeing in Angeline. And yes, she was older to be in fourth grade. We gave her the opportunity to come to the class. Five months later, that is Angeline. A transformation had begun in her life. Angeline wants to be a pilot so she can fly around the world and make a difference. She was not the top student when we took her. Now she's the best student, not just in our school, but in the entire division that we are in. That's Sharon. That's five years later. That's Evelyn. Five months later, that is the difference that we are making.
As a new dawn is happening in my school, a new beginning is happening. As we speak right now, 125 girls will never be mutilated. One hundred twenty-five girls will not be married when they're 12 years old. One hundred twenty-five girls are creating and achieving their dreams. This is the thing that we are doing, giving them opportunities where they can rise. As we speak right now, women are not being beaten because of the revolutions we've started in our community.
I want to challenge you today. You are listening to me because you are here, very optimistic. You are somebody who is so passionate. You are somebody who wants to see a better world. You are somebody who wants to see that war ends, no poverty. You are somebody who wants to make a difference. You are somebody who wants to make our tomorrow better. I want to challenge you today that to be the first, because people will follow you. Be the first. People will follow you. Be bold. Stand up. Be fearless. Be confident. Move out, because as you change your world, as you change your community, as we believe that we are impacting one girl, one family, one village, one country at a time. We are making a difference, so if you change your world, you are going to change your community, you are 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.
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Kakenya Ntaiya made a deal with her father: She would undergo the traditional Maasai rite of passage of female circumcision if he would let her go to high school. Ntaiya tells the fearless story of continuing on to college, and of working with her village elders to build a school for girls in her community. It’s the educational journey of one that altered the destiny of 125 young women. (Filmed at TEDxMidAtlantic.)
Kakenya Ntaiya refused to accept the continued oppression of women in her Maasai village -- so she built a school that's shifting gender expectations in her community. Full bio »