When President Barack Obama met members of the civil society at Kenyatta University on Sunday, a young girl stole the show.
Linet Momposhi Nenkoitol, 16, a Form Two student at Pangani Girls’ High School in Nairobi spoke to the US president’s heart. He was so captivated that when the microphone was about to be passed to the next speaker, the President said, “Let her have the mic. Her story is quite inspiring.”
She had started off her conversation in a memorable way, “Let me tell you a story about my friend...”
The story was about her primary school friend who got married off to an older man at the age of eleven. She had undergone female circumcision and as it is the norm among her people, this eleven-year-old was now a ‘woman’ ready to be married off.
“Now she is 15 and a mother of two struggling to feed her children,” she narrated as the president of the world’s most powerful nation keenly listened.
Thus Linet’s friend’s dream of education was cut short. Linet’s, just like hundreds of girls from her community, was also destined to follow the same path.
She told the president, “At the age of three, I knew how to milk cows and wash utensils. Our community requires that we do these as we prepare for being women in society. As you do this, you know you are being prepared for marriage.
“Once this training is perfected, then the final requirement before marriage is circumcision.
“After this your father can take cattle from any man irrespective of his age. In most cases, girls end up getting married to very old men. It is a culture in which women have less voice and choice. You are married to please your father who gets recognition among his age mates. Nobody cares about your desire for an education,” she said.
But Linet’s lucky stars smiled and she was jerked out of this laid-out destiny. Two things happened that changed the course of her life: the circumcision of her friend 2009 and the start of Kakena Girls’ Excellence Centre in Kilgoris, Narok County, in the same year.
The founder of the centre, Kakena Ntaiya, 38, who comes from the same village as Linet, started the centre to rescue girls from early marriage. Dr Ntaiya had gone through circumcision and escaped marriage to pursue education. At the back of her mind, she knew she was destined to help girls from her hometown who wanted to go to school.
“I underwent female genital mutilation when I was 13. This meant that I was supposed to be married but I escaped and went to school. I later went to the US for further studies. This is why I understand the pain that our girls go through and want to help where I can,” says Ntaiya, who has a doctorate in education.
So Linet was among the first eight girls to join the new centre. She had also escaped the cut.
“Being at the centre ensured that I was away from men who could have shown interest in me. I was also able to focus my mind on class work now that I was not performing domestic chores. The only way to make sure that girls are safe and remain in class is to have them in such centres. This way, we can give millions of girls freedom to excel and in the process bring participate in society development,” says Linet.
When she sat her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations two years ago, she was among the eight girls from the centre who secured places at national schools.
This was no mean feat given the background and cultural dictates that she defied.
Linet was the first girl from her village to join a national school.
“I am happy that I did not undergo female genital mutilation. I now have my dignity as a girl and importantly sure of achieving my education dream,” says Linet. She has since made a vow.
“I will never undergo the humiliating practice. My community should also have its daughters in class. Let us solve gender imbalances by ensuring that both girls and boys have access to an education.”
During school holidays, Linet talks other girls out of circumcision and early marriage. She tells them about the beauty of getting an education.
At the centre, she told President Obama, she was able to dream, and dream big. She even decided at that point, in primary school, that she wanted to be a cardiologist.
Her life, she reckons, has been full of surprises. The latest was when she got a call from the school principal, Mrs Deborah Amuka, telling her that she had been invited to join President Obama in a roundtable at Kenyatta University. The USAid had made the call. She thought it was a practical joke.
Covenant with the president
“How could a village girl attend an event to be graced by the world’s most powerful president? I was satisfied with watching him on television but not sitting with him under the same roof,” she says.
The day before meeting President Obama she was filled with curiosity.
“Being close to him was enough history to tell my classmates and villagers,” she says.
But the girl got more than she had imagined.
One, her story so interested the president that he wanted to hear more. And the experience of being in the same room with President Obama and talking with him, reinforced her education dream not just locally but at the prestigious Harvard University, Obama’s alma mater.
“I told the president that I want to study cardiology at the same university that he went to. I made it clear to him that I want to show that girls from my village can study cardiology and that no profession is a preserve of some gender. If you give girls a chance to be in class they can prove a point and help reduce gender disparities in communities:”
At the end of the session, something extraordinary happened; the President sought her for a photo.
This is something she will remember forever.
“It was humbling to have a photo-shoot with President Obama. He spread the charm of a possible dream and self-belief in me. It is not a daily occurrence to have a president of influence and power sit with people. His simple gesture inspired me and thousands of young girls that we all have the power to break free from the community and cultural bondage.”
Linet believes she entered a covenant with President Obama.
“I am now obligated to fulfill the pledge I made to him. I will ensure that I work hard to achieve my dream. I understand he keeps his word, he may contact his embassy to follow my progress. I am now renewed in my commitment to do my best.”
As Linet bade goodbye to President Obama, she was sure that meeting with him was the inspiration to give her wings to fly her dream higher.
The school principal, Mrs Amuka, is confident in her.
“Since she joined Pangani, her performance has been improving each term. We have reason to believe she will do well in her final examinations and pursue her dream,” she says. Pangani Girls is in the process thus of moulding a cardiologist.
Of course, the girl has also put the school’s name on the international map, for President Obama’s visit was beamed throughout the world.