Even the prospect of excruciating pain couldn’t stop Kakenya Ntaiya from getting an education. Born in a Maasai village in south Kenya, engaged at age five, she was destined to undergo circumcision and end her schooling at 14. But Kakenya had a different plan.
"I really liked going to school," she said. "I knew that once I went through the cutting, I was going to be married off. And my dream of becoming a teacher was going to end."
Threatening to run away, she negotiated with her father: she would be circumcised only if she could also finish high school. He agreed. Then she negotiated with the village elders to do what no girl had ever done: leave her village of Enoosaen to go to college in the United States. She promised that she would use her education to benefit Enoosaen. The entire village collected money to pay for her journey.
That’s the kind of determination that brought Dr. Ntaiya—armed with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh—back to Enoosaen in 2009 to open its first girls’ primary school. The Kakenya Center for Excellence now has 155 students in grades four through eight and has become a beacon of hope to girls and parents. Educating these girls, says Dr. Ntaiya, will empower them to become agents of change in their community and country.
For her work inspiring hearts and minds, Dr. Ntaiya has received numerous honors, including a Woman of Impact award from the Women in the World Foundation and a Global Leadership award from Vital Voices. Her story has been the subject of a Washington Post series, a BBC documentary, and many magazine articles.
This October she was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of 2013; she will use the $50,000 prize to build more classrooms.
But she—and you—have a chance to help even more. The general public votes on the final Hero of the Year, who wins a $250,000 prize to be used for his or her cause.
So vote here, once a day, every day through November 17, for Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya as CNN Hero of the Year.
Educating girls, keeping them out of early marriages, teaching them their own worth and power…what could be more heroic?