Pitt Alum Kakenya Ntaiya Returns to Tell Her Inspirational Story

Issue Date: 
November 17, 2016

Kakenya smiling in a crowd

The poised Kenyan woman strides to the stage in her golden dress and black high heels. Tall and proud, she smiles at the audience. “I want to tell my story,” says Kakenya Ntaiya.

Her story brought her back to campus and to Alumni Hall’s auditorium for Pitt’s 15th annual International Week, Oct. 24-28, at which she was the keynote speaker.

The week, sponsored by the University Center for International Studies (UCIS), helps to drive the University’s international and global engagement. It's designed to celebrate diversity, build awareness of study-abroad opportunities, and educate about social challenges in other parts of the world. This year’s focus was “Race, Gender and Leadership Series: Perspectives on Africa.”

Ntaiya’s story is one of a young Maasai girl (“the people who wear the red clothes”) who grew up barefoot and poor in rural Kenya. Like most girls in her village she worked hard, walking long distances to fetch water or fire wood, cleaning, and caring for her seven younger siblings.

She was an exceptional student at her rural school, but, traditionally, most young women there marry early and abandon education. Ntaiya wanted to continue her schooling. To do so, she brokered a deal with her father—she would undergo the traditional ceremony of female genital mutilation if he allowed her to finish high school. When she graduated, she was invited to attend Randolph College in Virginia on scholarship. The whole village, including men, pitched in to help fund her airfare.

In 2005, she came to Pitt for a doctorate in education, which she completed in 2011. The more she learned, the more passionate she became about women’s education. During spring break in 2009, Ntaiya went home to her village in Enoosaen, Kenya, to open a school for girls. “I was tired of talking and ready for action,” she says.

She had nothing—no books, no plan to feed the girls. “Only a vision,” she says. It was the birth of the Kakenya Center for Excellence. She started by renting a house. Many of the girls’ parents paid tuition with maize or beans.

Ntaiya thought she would start the school with 10 girls—100 showed up. Today the center boards grades 4 through 8 and teaches primary school. Tuition is $100 a year.

Since it began, the center has sent 300 girls into high schools. All of its girls have avoided female genital mutilation and early marriage.  

In 2014, an eighth grade student at the Kakenya Center for Excellence achieved the top score in the entire country on Kenya’s national exams. Currently, 44 percent of the center’s graduates attend Kenya’s most prestigious schools.

Ntaiya’s story is inspirational, says Macrina Lelei, who is director of UCIS's African Studies Program. “Because Kakenya went back home, she created change and awareness in her village. I bet that everyone there recognizes her and knows about Pitt and how it can create young professionals who can make contributions to society.”

Also a native of Kenya, Lelei notes Ntaiya’s trailblazing advocacy. “She comes from a place where women did not have a voice. She changed that narrative and is really making a difference.”

Ntaiya (EDUC ’11G) has been widely praised and awarded for her work, including being named a 2013 CNN Hero and a Women in the World “Woman of Impact.” She was also recognized as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and was named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World."

And Ntaiya continues to dream big, preparing ways for even more young African girls to follow in her footsteps.

She wants to build a K-12 school that reaches 600 girls. She wants people to see girls as not simply being marriageable, but as individuals who can bring status to the whole village. She believes education is the way forward.

“I want a model school,” she says. “I want to be a lamp, to be the recipe for how you train girls.”

International Week events were hosted by Pitt’s School of Education, College of Business Administration, David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, Study Abroad Office, and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.