Redbird graduate student Lavender Ntaoti is using her Illinois State education to provide health services to a community that desperately needs them.
Ntaoti is studying for her master’s degree in health communication and is a graduate assistant in Health Promotion and Wellness. She has done exceptional work that has been presented to United Nations representatives. Even with these accomplishments, getting to Illinois State in the first place may be the most impressive of all.
She is one of the few people from the Maasai tribe in Emali, Kenya, to be sponsored to study in the United States. In her tribe, most marriages are arranged in meetings where no women are present, not even the mothers of the young women who are to be married. Women do not receive inheritances from their parents, so an arranged marriage is often the only venue for them to have belongings. As a result, many women in the tribe don’t pursue education.
“In this community, women do not have a voice,” Ntaoti said. “When I was in high school, most of the girls from my tribe were already in arranged marriages. They didn’t feel like they needed to work hard because their fate was already decided.”
Ntaoti’s mother was able to separate her from these aspects of Maasai culture and encouraged her in her quest to become educated. Ntaoti finished her undergraduate studies at Moi University in Kenya and started looking into graduate programs in the United States online. She was impressed with Illinois State University’s communications program but needed help to get here.
Thankfully, she had help in the form of Vic Hamer. Hamer is the president of Give Me Water Lord, a nonprofit Christian organization that drills deep water wells in Kenya. Hamer visited her community when she was young, and her family had stayed close to him over the years. When it was time for Ntaoti to come to the United States, Hamer was able to help sponsor her.
Kerri Calvert, coordinator at Health Promotion and Wellness and Ntaoti’s supervisor, is consistently impressed with Ntaoti’s positivity, openness, and fearlessness, especially considering her difficult road to Illinois State.
“The courage that takes to come here by herself, to leave everything she knows and come to a place that is so different than where she is from is extraordinary,” Calvert said. “The fortitude with which she has done that and exceptional.”
Coming to Illinois State opened multiple opportunities for Lavender to learn and grow. During the summer of 2018, Ntaoti took an internship at Stonehouse Water Technologies in Wisconsin to help modify a water purification system called the WaterPOD. Ntaoti explains that the filter was made with American water and contaminants in mind and wasn’t getting rid of those that are likely to be found in Kenyan water. After extensive research and testing of the device with the company’s scientists, Ntaoti was able to eliminate those contaminants.
United Nations representatives were interested in the project, and Ntaoti was asked to present the results of her research for them in Milwaukee. They were impressed with her work and she is happy to report the project is moving forward. This built the basis of her thesis project, in which she traveled back to Kenya in December 2018 to educate and train approximately 500 people on water health.
“I want to make sure we can get water purification systems into areas where they are needed,” she said. “And if they can’t get them, I want people to know to boil their water.”
Ntaoti is not content to solve only one problem at a time. Another issue for the people of the Maasai tribe is a lack of sexual education. Sexually transmitted diseases are a significant problem as women often do not know what they are experiencing when they have one. If they do know they have a disease, it is rare for them to seek medical attention out of fear of accusations of sexual promiscuity. According to Ntaoti, they are more often spread due to a lack of proper sanitation and knowledge.
“I am working on writing a training manual for midwives so they can be a resource for the women there,” she said. “We need to educate them so they can get proper medical attention.”
At Illinois State, Ntaoti works to make health services more accessible to international students and to educate students on common health issues, including sexual and alcohol education. In this role, she has been able to build her communication skills even more, which will help her when she is trying to teach the people of her tribe about these same issues.
“At Health Promotion and Wellness, I do the things I want to do for my tribe,” she said. “I am very lucky to have that experience. Being able to meet different people who have different backgrounds and being able to adapt to suit them and meet their needs was important to learn.”
She also realizes she is only one person and wants to ensure educational resources are available to the Maasai. To that end she is working with Professor Lance Lippert to collect books so she can start libraries in Kenya. She wants to make books available for Maasai children as she never owned a book as a child, nor did she have access to a library.
“Dr. Lippert told me ‘You don’t have to wait two years to start this project, you can start it now,’” Ntaoti said. “I felt encouraged by the department. It was through the libraries project that I realized I can do anything.”
After graduation Ntaoti plans on staying in the United States to pursue her Ph.D. in health communications and a second master’s degree in training and development.
“I want to be a fully equipped trainer,” she said. “I want to be as prepared as I can to help people.”
Tyler Emken can be reached at tkemken@IllinoisState.edu.