ONTARIO — Father Symon Peter Ntaiyia left his native Kenya in 2002, but the people of his homeland are never far from his mind.
In fact, he recently founded the Friends of Fr. Symon Jubilee School for Nomads in order to ensure Kenyan children, especially those of the nomadic Maasai tribe, would have access to quality education.
Father Ntaiyia, pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Ontario, Sodus and Sodus Point, is passionate about education. He credits his own unexpected — and at first unwanted — education with drastically changing the course of his life.
In 1958 Father Ntaiyia was a 10-year-old boy happily tending his nomadic family’s goats and sheep in southern Kenya, which was still under British colonial rule. His life soon changed, however, when the colonial government built a boarding school and ordered the Maasai’s tribal chiefs to select children to enroll at the school, Father Ntaiyia said.
"Still the parents resisted that school because they didn’t see the value of kids going to school … instead of being there helping with their goats and sheep," he explained.
Many of these parents even bribed the tribal chiefs with goats and sheep, urging the chiefs not to select their children, Father Ntaiyia said.
"It looks as if my father was not a friend of the chief, so I was picked for school," he said with a chuckle.
Father Ntaiyia was taken to the school more than 100 miles away from his parents, and was away for the next eight months. The school environment was completely foreign to the young Father Ntaiyia, but he thrived there. His district was Protestant and Catholicism wasn’t promoted, but he learned about Catholicism from some of the teachers who secretly taught about their faith. After he was baptized Father Ntaiyia continued his education and eventually went to college in Kenya.
While he was there he met a priest from Sudan. The priest spoke a different language than the local people, so he said Mass in English and Father Ntaiyia translated it into the local dialect for those at Mass. Father Ntaiyia said this experience planted the first seed of his future vocation.
"I said, ‘Maybe if I was a priest, I would not need anybody to translate for my people,’" he recalled.
Father Ntaiyia entered a seminary and was ordained in 1980. He later opened a successful boys’ school — which so far has produced 11 priests — before coming to Rochester in the late 1980s to attend St. John Fisher College and then the University of Rochester, where he earned first his undergraduate and then master’s degrees. He returned to Kenya in 1992 and spent the next decade educating young people there.
In 2002 Father Ntaiyia came back to the Diocese of Rochester as an extern priest. He served at St. Helen Parish in Gates, Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Elmira and St. Agnes Parish in Avon before his incardination into the Rochester Diocese in 2005. In the meantime he’d begun to think about how to celebrate his silver jubilee, which would be Dec. 7, 2005. At home in Kenya he probably would have had a small party, but in the Rochester Diocese many didn’t even know his jubilee was approaching.
"I started thinking of … how I would be able to celebrate this jubilee in a way that will be very meaningful and memorable," he said. "I started to think of the day I went to school."
After reflecting on the ways his education transformed his life, Father Ntaiyia decided to use his small savings to purchase a plot of land in Narok, Kenya, and build a boarding school.
"I wanted for the Maasai community to catch up with education. They are left very much behind by other communities because of their lack of education. The school is going to educate and push people ahead," he said.
When his parishioners in Tioga County, Elmira and Avon caught wind of his new project they quickly latched on to it, and donated funds to help him build the first classroom building, which was completed ahead of schedule.
"I was hoping to complete eight classrooms next year, and we did that a year ago," Father Ntaiyia said.
The school opened last year and educated 115 students in third through fifth grades. Three of the eight rooms were used as classrooms, while the others were used as dormitory, kitchen, dining and administrative areas. Construction is under way on new dormitories and dining areas. When those areas are complete, Father Ntaiyia said, the remaining five rooms in the original building will revert to classrooms and more grades will be added to the school.
Father Ntaiyia visited the school in January. It was incredibly rewarding and fulfilling to see the students’ happy faces and watch them learn, he said, noting that it’s hard for him to be so far away from his homeland but good to know he’s helping his fellow Maasai by doing so.
"I believe education is what will take people forward in Africa," he stated.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the Friends of Fr. Symon Jubilee School for Nomads, visit www.schoolfornomads.org.