Bill Gates recognises Kenya’s Kakenya Ntaiya for her role in empowering Maasai girls

Kakenya Ntaiya, the founder of Kakenya Centre for Excellence, an educational institution helping save Maasai girls from early marriage. [File, Standard]

American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates has recognised Kenyan Kakenya Ntaiya as a hero, for her contribution towards improving the lives of women and girls in her community.

Gates honoured Kakenya on January 24 as one of the “Heroes in the Field,” an initiative that he says, “seeks to recognise people who work to make the world better without fame or recognition.”

The trailblazer has previously been named among the top 10 CNN persons of the year and Obama Foundation Africa Leader!  

But many years before the accolades, 13-year- old Kakenya Ntaiya was faced with a critical choice a girl her age should never have to make.

It was either to undergo the painful cut and become a wife at 13, or rebelling against ingrained and revered traditions of her Maasai community. Kakenya settled for the latter.

Driven by her dream and desire for an empowered life, she dared to pursue a life far different from the path mapped for many girls in her tiny rural village of Enoosaen. 

Ntaiya managed to negotiate her future with her father by informing him she would only consent to circumcision if he promised to allow her to finish high school and continue her education. That, or run away and disgrace her family. 

Her father consented. She underwent the cut but managed to extricate herself from early marriage by convincing the village elders to allow her to leave, with the promise to return and use her schooling to benefit her community.

With the help of her villagers and scholarships, Ntaiya went on to earn her undergraduate degree and PhD in Education in the USA. 

Ntaiya came back home and founded Kakenya’s Dream, a nonprofit dedicated to girl child education and curtailing harmful traditions such as early marriage and FGM. 

She collaborates with village elders who donated the land upon which she built the Kakenya’s Center for Excellence.

The school enrols pre-pubescent girls, who are at an age when parents are likely to start pulling them out of school for early marriage.

The institution provides housing, uniforms, books, and strong education, and in return, parents have to agree not to subject their daughters to FGM and early marriage while still in school.  

Kakenya also runs programmes to sensitise Maasai boys and community members on the dangers of genital cutting and child marriage.

“All of it is about breaking the silence and that has really helped us to break through all these cultural barriers that hinder women,” Kakenya told 

Graduates of Kakenya’s school go to colleges in Kenya and abroad, and like Kakenya, many return to empower their communities. For instance, a recent graduate studying Nursing in Australia used her break to volunteer at a local health clinic in Kenya.

“This community is being transformed by the girls that have gone through our school,” Kakenya said.

Several Africans have received recognition from Bill Gates, among them Cacilda Fumo a Mozambique activist who helps people with HIV receive lifesaving medicine, and Nigeria’s Dr Adaora Okoli, who survived Ebola and dedicated her career to preventing epidemics. 

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