Kenyan Girl Dares To Live Off Beaten Path

Kakenya Ntaiya grew up in a small village in Kenya in which girls were compelled to quit school, marry and raise families soon after they turned 13. Yet she dreamed of another life as an educator and leader. Her remarkable journey is the subject of Aaron Kisner's award-winning animated short film, "Kakenya". Host Allison Keyes speaks with both the film’s director and star about her story.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

We're going to hear from one of the stars of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" in a few minutes. He's offering up a new film with a serious side and you'll want to hear about it. That's coming up.

First, though, ask any child what they want to be when they grow up and most won't hesitate to tell you their dream job. Kakenya Ntaiya was no different.

(Soundbite of film, "Kakenya")

Ms. KAKENYA NTAIYA: I dreamed of becoming a teacher because teachers looked nice. Teachers didn't have to work on the farm.

KEYES: Yet, growing up in a small farming village in Kenya, where young girls were trained to take care of families, the chances of Kakenya realizing that dream were slim. But the young dreamer turned the odds in her favor. Kakenya's remarkable life story is a subject of Aaron Kisner's short film which shares her name.

The film recently won first place and a $25,000 prize at the ViewChange online film contest, a competition recognizing people who improve the lives of others in developing countries. Kakenya Ntaiya and Aaron Kisner are both here at our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. NTAIYA: Thank you.

Mr. AARON KISNER (Filmmaker, "Kakenya"): Thanks for having us.

KEYES: I have to tell you, that film was three minutes long and I feel like I know your whole life story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Let's hear a little bit of a clip of you just describing some of the traditions in your village.

(Soundbite of film, "Kakenya")

Ms. NTAIYA: When a girl becomes 12 or 13 years old, there is a ceremony. We are told that this ceremony will make you a woman. And once you are a woman, you can get married. We are not supposed to cry. I knew that if I were married, I could no longer go to school. I would not become a teacher.

KEYES: I guess coming from the American tradition, we can't even imagine something like that happening. What happened after the ceremony in your life?

Ms. NTAIYA: I cried a lot. You are considered a woman and can be married and start a family and have children. That was not the case with me. I had already talked to my dad that I would continue going to school. So that's what I did. I went to school.

KEYES: Was he surprised when you asked him?

Ms. NTAIYA: Not really, because women generally are very marginalized and for a girl you cannot even speak to your dad directly. You speak through your mom. But in this case, I had to talk to my father directly. I think he was more shocked than surprised. But the alternative was to just tell me, OK.

KEYES: After you graduated, you did another thing women from your village don't do. I mean, you got a scholarship. You came to a university in the United States. How did that whole thing happen? It seems like such an amazing miracle.

Ms. NTAIYA: Looking at how my mother's life was, my dad used to beat her and, you know, you come home once a year and I wouldn't see him for a long time. And raising my little siblings with my mom was really a difficult work that we were doing. So when I got an opportunity that I could, you know, study outside my community, I jumped on it and tried to not run away, but work with the people in the community to support my idea, because I was afraid that they will curse me, that if I go out I will not succeed. So I wanted the eldest to bless me. And that was how I went to them, one by one, and they came together, they raised money, they blessed me. And I've come to this country, in America, and got an education that has helped me help them.

KEYES: Aaron, I've got to ask you, how did you meet her and how did you get involved in this wonderful story?

Mr. KISNER: I met Kakenya in 2007. I was invited to a summit of African women leaders and Kakenya was representing Kenya. And she was also a mentor to one of the young girls who was there. And Kakenya stood out right away. You could tell that this is somebody who, even if she doesn't speak loudly, when she speaks, she's got something very important to say.

KEYES: What made you say, I have to put this on film and I have to do it with animation?

Mr. KISNER: The animation comes from a line that I've heard her say a number of times when she's been telling her story, which is it doesn't matter where they are, every child has a dream. She always talks about how this whole life has come out of the dream that she had. And I thought it needed to be told from the story of a child dreaming.

Why put it on film? I think the more people that know her story, the more chances there will be for more Kakenyas to emerge all over the world and I think film is a really good way to do that. Kakenya tells her story better than anybody. But she can't be as many places as the film can get.

KEYES: Right.

Mr. KISNER: So we hope that the film will go out as an emissary and will inspire.

KEYES: I should note to our listeners, that this whole film is on our website. It's three minutes long, so please go to npr.org and to Programs and click on TELL ME MORE and watch it.

Kakenya, I wonder, how much money did your village raise for you and how proud are they of you as to where you've gotten now?

Ms. NTAIYA: They raised $700.

KEYES: Wow.

Ms. NTAIYA: And that enabled me to get a ticket and to come to this country.

KEYES: Were you scared to come here?

Ms. NTAIYA: I don't think I was scared until I got on the plane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NTAIYA: And then I said, wow. So it doesn't look like I'm going back. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NTAIYA: ...my education, my being in the U.S., getting an education, going back home, it's really really changed a lot of minds in the village. And they see that it's the same girl that was here, and she's gone out, but she's coming back and helping us. And the fathers, the mothers of the children we have in the school, they all appreciate and it's something that I had never dreamed of, but it would actually be the way it is now. I have always wanted to help the girls but I never thought it in the way that it has really come to be.

KEYES: And you have been able to realize your dream of opening a school there. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ms. NTAIYA: The school is for girls and we have 63 girls at the school.

KEYES: Do they live on campus at the school?

Ms. NTAIYA: Yes. They all live at the school. Initially, when we started, they were walking to the school. Some of them were walking five miles and that was a long distance - that we only have a few moments with them at the school. But now that they live on the school, they don't spend more time with doing their, you know, sweeping house, collecting water and all the things that they did at home, but now they are children, which they are supposed to be, and they are dreaming.

KEYES: Aaron, you decided to give all the prize money away to support that dorm. Why?

Mr. KISNER: Everybody that worked on this film thought that that was exactly how that money should be spent, was to support the school. It seemed like that's why we made the film and sometimes when you make a film you have a long-term impact of actually touching the lives of those girls in the school. And so it's an amazing feeling.

KEYES: Youve made a lot of films, but this one seems very personal to you.

Mr. KISNER: It's personal. I'm investing in Kakenya. I want to see her be a success. And I'm also invested in the idea that she represents and that the school represents, that every child deserves opportunity. And so the fact that she's living back every day on a day-to-day basis makes it very easy to tell her story.

KEYES: I need to ask you to Kakenya, for the women in your village who didn't traditionally see education as a path for them, has your school changed that mindset? Do women have a broader horizon to look forward to there?

Ms. NTAIYA: Most certainly. I think for the other women to see me being a role model, they all want their daughters to excel and they all want their daughters to have a future and their mindset is really that education is going to give more opportunities to their daughters, and not just the mothers. I mean, even the fathers.

KEYES: I've got to ask you, youve become a teacher. You've built your school. What are you training of now?

Ms. NTAIYA: To me I look at education as the entrance point, because once you give somebody an education they can decide for themselves where to be in the future, and that's something that can never be stolen away from them. Even for women; it just stays with them forever. And for me to see a future where girls, boys, you know, women, men we are all equal and we are all happy and we all support each other. That's what I want.

KEYES: Kakenya Ntaiya is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, who fulfilled her childhood dream to open a school for girls in her Messiah village in Kenya. Aaron Kisner is director of an award-winning short film about her life. They both joined us from our studios in Washington D.C.

Thank you so much for such an inspirational story.

Mr. KISNER: Thank you.

Ms. NTAIYA: Thank you. Thank you very much for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

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