Kakenya Ntaiya, a trailblazer for women’s education in Kenya and National Geographic Emerging Explorer has been selected as one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of 2013.
“I couldn’t believe it,” admits an elated Kakenya who received the good news on Wednesday. The title comes with a $50,000 prize, a sum that could make a big difference for her all-girls boarding school, The Kakenya Center for Excellence, in Enoosaen, Kenya.
Born in a small village 250 miles outside of Nairobi, Kekanya was to be married by the age of 12. A rite of passage for all Maasai girls, females can be prepared for marriage as early as 10 by undergoing the gruesome procedure of genital cutting, also know as female circumcision. From this time on, girls are expected to drop out of school and assume the duties of a wife and, very soon after, mother.
When it was time for Kakenya to undergo this coming-of-age ceremony, she made a deal with her father: she would endure genital cutting if she could continue attending school, threatening to run away and disgrace the family if he refused.
“I went through the female genital cutting. I understand what it is that these girls go through. I knew that the very best thing I could do for the girls was to give them an education,” says Kakenya who later became the first women in her community to attend university in the United States.
Kakenya went on to work for the United Nations and earn a doctorate in education, but never forgot the promise she made to return to the community that had supported her in her pursuit of higher education.
In 2009, Kakenya opened the Kakenya Center for Excellence, the first primary school for girls in her village. Today, the school hosts over 150 girls ranging from 4th to 8th grade.
“Now, they can focus on their studies — and on being kids,” Kakenya says. “It’s the only way you can give a girl child a chance to excel.” Now ranked one of the top school’s in the district, more than 100 girls apply for only 30 spots per year. Although the center receives some support from the Kenyan government, most of the school’s expenses are paid for by Kakenya’s U.S.-based non-profit.
One of the Top 10 Heroes will receive an additional $250,000 for their cause if the public chooses them as the CNN Hero of the Year. What could Kakenya do with a quarter of a million dollars? The grand prize would pay for a fully functional second school capable of doubling current enrollment.