Today I have not one, but two ‘good people’ for you, and … a surprise ending! If these two people don’t bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart, then I don’t know what will. Gronda … grab your box of tissues. For today’s story, we travel to Kenya on the African continent …
The teacher …
Can you imagine being engaged at the tender young age of five, being expected to leave school to marry, bear children and become a homemaker in your early teens? That is exactly what was expected of Kakenya Ntaiya, who spent her childhood in the small Maasai village of Enoosaen in Western Kenya. She was the oldest of eight children, working hard alongside men tending the fields and helping her mother haul water and care for her siblings. The family was very poor, but young Kakenya would dream of a better life. School was her respite and she excelled at it, dreaming of becoming a teacher, but her life was set to follow the traditional path of ending school to become a wife and a mother. Kakenya’s dream was important enough that she was willing to defy her father in order to return to finish high school.
Eventually, she was accepted to college in the United States and awarded a scholarship, but she needed help to travel there. She reached out to her community and promised that in exchange for their support, she would return to the village and use her education to help them. And that is just what she did. The villagers all pitched in and collected money to help Kakenya, and off she went to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now the co-ed Randolph College) in Virginia. Although Kakenya had grown up without electricity, it didn’t take her long to get the hang of writing papers on a computer. She also became the first youth advisor to the United Nations Population Fund, where she traveled the world as a passionate advocate for girls’ education. She went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where she received her Ph.D. in Education.
And during it all, she never forgot her promise to her village. Kakenya returned to her village in Maasai where only 11% of girls even finish primary school, and in 2009 she opened the first primary school for girls in her village, the Kakenya Center for Excellence. The Kakenya Center for Excellence started as a traditional day school, but now the students, who range from fourth to eighth grade, live at the school. This spares the girls from having to walk miles back and forth, which puts them at risk of being sexually assaulted, a common problem in rural African communities. It also ensures the girls don’t spend all their free time doing household chores.Students receive three meals a day as well as uniforms, books and tutoring. There are also extracurricular activities such as student council, debate and soccer. Class sizes are small — many schools in Kenya are extremely overcrowded — and the girls have more chances to participate. With these opportunities and the individual attention they receive, the girls are inspired to start dreaming big.
“They want to become doctors, pilots, lawyers. It’s exciting to see that. Fathers are now saying, ‘My daughter could do better than my son’.”
As a public school, the Kakenya Center for Excellence receives some financial support from the Kenyan government. But the majority of the school’s expenses are paid for by Ntaiya’s U.S.-based nonprofit, Kakenya’s Dream. While families are asked to contribute to cover the cost of the girls’ meals, an expense that can be paid in maize or beans, Ntaiya covers the costs of any students who cannot pay.Each year, more than 100 girls apply for approximately 30 spots available in each new class. Parents who enroll their daughters must agree that they will not be subjected to genital mutilation or early marriage.
Her nonprofit also runs health and leadership camps that are open to all sixth-grade girls in the village and teach them about female circumcision, child marriage, teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
“We tell them about every right that they have, and we teach them how to speak up. It’s about empowering the girls.”
Today, Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya reaches thousands of young girls and community members each year through the holistic, and girl-centered programs she pioneered at Kakenya’s Dream. There is much more I could say about Dr. Kekenya Ntaiya, but I want to introduce you to the other ‘good person’ …
The bridge-builder …
Harmon Parker is a bricklayer who became a master mason early in his life. Just an everyday, average workingman, he spent some time working with a developmental group in Africa some twenty years ago. And he heard the stories … stories like this one …
Nengume could see the lights of the clinic, not far away, shining in the deep darkness of the landscape. As the lights grew brighter, her hope grew stronger. Help for her child was near. She adjusted the baby on her back and pushed ahead. Then, she heard the sound she had feared, and hope faded quickly into the dark, angry waters of the rushing river.
The same life-sustaining waters that provided so much were now keeping her from the help she needed. An attempt to cross the floodwaters, especially at night, would mean certain death. A safe place to cross could be more than twenty miles down the river. She looked up again and saw the lights on the other side of the river – hope just out of reach.
Negume’s was just one of many such stories, and as he listened, Harmon Parker saw his path. Harmon Parker began building footbridges over dangerous rivers in Kenya more twenty years ago. Since 1997, Harmon Parker has helped build more than 60 footbridges over perilous rivers in Kenya. He established Bridging the Gap Africa (BtGA), a nonprofit that doesn’t just build the bridges, but involves the community so that the people truly feel they are a part of the effort. Their mission statement is simple:
Bridging the Gap Africa (BtGA) believes that marginalized African communities should not suffer from the dangers posed by impassable rivers. Footbridges prevent drowning and ensure safe, uninterrupted access to education, health care, and economic opportunity. BtGA builds bridges that save lives.
And this is what Harmon Parker has dedicated his life to for the past 20 years.
Both Dr. Ntaiya and Mr. Parker certainly qualify by themselves as ‘good people doing good things’, but wait! There’s more! These two, each having been a ‘CNN Hero’, met at a CNN Heroes event and felt an instant connection. It happened that a bridge near Kakenya’s village had recently been washed away in flood waters, leaving many children unable to get to school.
“I’ve got a project for you!” said Kakenya, and Mr. Parker rose to the challenge. See them tell the story themselves …
Now wasn’t that awesome? These two people and their sheer level of dedication to making life a bit better warmed my heart, and I hope it did yours too. Have a great day, friends!