Last week I had the privilege of speaking with a young woman called Robin Wiszowaty. She isn’t a household name. You won’t find her in newspaper gossip columns, or on celebrity chat shows, or sashaying down the red carpet at the Oscars.
Yet I came away from our 45-minute conversation quite star-struck – not even my treasured chance meeting with Paul McCartney could compete – and more inspired than I can say.
A brief bio: From Suburbia to Savannah
Robin Wiszowaty was born in 1981 and grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois: a predominantly white, middle-class suburb outside Chicago. Although on paper Schaumburg appears an ideal place to spend childhood, with its summer block parties and strong sense of neighborliness, Robin says she never quite fit in.
“From an early age, I was unsatisfied with my ordinary life….I could never find my niche or any comfortable sense of self.” [My Maasai Life]
This feeling of discontent followed her through her teen years and into college at the University of Illinois where she studied speech communications. Only after a two-week trip to Israel in December 2001, to explore her Jewish heritage, did Robin begin to understand what she wanted from life.
“It [reminded] me how fiercely I longed to break out of this Western mindset and find something else.” [My Maasai Life]
While her concerned and long-suffering parents assumed the trip would rid her system of dissatisfaction and wanderlust, those two weeks in Israel were, in fact, only the beginning of a lifetime of traveling.
To the dismay of her parents a few months later, through a program run by the University of Minnesota, Robin was on her way to Kenya. After two months with a host family in Nairobi, where she learned basic Swahili and took classes on Kenyan culture, she went to live for a year in rural Nkoyet-naiborr, a Maasai community in the Great Rift Valley – a community and lifestyle as far removed from her Illinois home as anyone can imagine.
Nevertheless, Nkoyet-naiborr became her second home, in the truest sense. Here she forged deep, lasting friendships with her host family and members of the community, and was bestowed with a Maasai name: Naserian, meaning “peaceful person.” Mama, the mother in her host family, became her Kenyan mother, and Robin refers to the children of the family to as her brothers and sisters.
Today, nearly a decade after first arriving in Nairobi, Robin divides her time between Toronto and Kenya, working as Kenya Program Director with the charity Free The Children, implementing long-term development projects in partnership with local communities.
* * *
I spoke to Robin while she was in Canada, a few hours before she made the long trip back to Kenya. Her voice is soft, gentle, diffident, and not exactly what I’d expected; she’s had to overcome a lot of hurdles to be where she is today and, after reading her autobiography, I’m aware that I’m talking to one very determined person.
On Free The Children…
Kate Allison: Tell us a little more about what you do for Free The Children.
Robin Wiszowaty: As Kenya Program Director, I oversee the Alternative Income projects for Kenyan women. We teach the women leadership, financial literacy, how to access loans; and by being able to earn their own money, the women can invest that extra income in their families, their homes and, importantly, their children’s education. They work in groups — there are around 120 women’s groups now — and one example of how they earn income is doing quality beadwork. The bracelets and necklaces they make are sold at the Me to We store in Toronto, and also at the online store. My own Mama, by the way, is one of the beaders — she’s a fantastic beader.
Craig and Marc Kielburger, the founders of Free The Children and Me to We, have more to say about Robin’s role:
We’ve seen her sitting in hushed, intimate conversation with village elders, whose trust she earned through empathy and understanding. We’ve seen her astonish visiting students and volunteers with stories of her adventures. And we’ve seen her embraced by the teary-eyed mamas who are eternally grateful for her hard work in her role as Free The Children’s Kenya Program Director.
Eighteen months ago, Robin’s autobiography “My Maasai Life” was published by Me to We Books — publishing division of Me to We, the for-profit social enterprise that supports Free The Children — and having read the book, I wanted to know more about it.
KA: Your book, “My Maasai Life”, tells the story of your transition from the American suburbs to life in a Kenyan village. What made you decide to write it?
RW: Lots of people have said to me that I should write a book about my experiences, but it was at the prompting of Craig Kielburger that I eventually wrote it. Craig was looking for books with a social message to be published by Me To We. “My Maasai Life” was the result, and was actually one of the first books in the Me to We publishing stable.
KA: What audience did you have in mind for the book when you wrote it?
RW: I originally intended it for high-school-aged girls who wanted to see the world — and also for their mothers, to help them understand this.
KA: Yes…in your book, you say your relationship with your own mother was somewhat rocky when you were that age.
RW: It was. But I look at myself now, and I think I’ve become the kind of person my parents always wanted me to be – albeit on my own terms.
(In fact, Robin’s parents long ago accepted, and proudly support, their daughter’s unconventional life choices.)
KA: What other kinds of readers have been attracted to the book?
RW: Young adults, in their 20s and 30s, who want to find a deeper meaning from life than they find in the corporate world where they are at present. And teachers; they read my book in World Issues classes, and discuss it with their students.
KA: Have you written any other books, or are you intending to do so?
RW: “My Maasai Life” has been adapted into a children’s book, subtitled “A Child’s Adventure in Africa”, and I’m currently working on another book, which I hope to have published in another couple of years or so. I’m about halfway through writing it — I don’t know what it will be called, and it doesn’t have a working title — and although it’s also about Kenya, this book is from the perspective of the women there, focusing on the universal concepts of motherhood and womanhood.
On fitting in…
KA: Can you think of a particular occasion in Kenya when you wondered, “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”
RW: [laughs] I can tell you exactly when that was. It was on my first night in Nkoyet-naiborr, when I was sleeping in the bed I shared with my sister, Faith, and I heard a wild animal howling outside…
“Faith! ” I whispered.
“Naserian . . . ?”
“What is that sound?”
Faith rolled over, annoyed at being woken. “Hyenas.”
Hyenas? Now sleep was even more impossible. I tried to block out those echoing wails, but my mind flooded with questions. Was I doing the right thing? Was I just substituting one set of frustrations for another? Had I made a terrible mistake?
KA: And what about the other way round — can you think of a moment when you felt more at home in Africa than in the United States?
RW: Oh yes…I’m “taken” by Kenya. There, I feel comfortable within my own soul, that I’m in the right spot. You could say that it’s a calling. The time I feel it most is when I’m sitting with the women, making tea over the fire, just talking…there’s so much soul, such a feeling of family and community.
When I first went to Kenya, I felt at home on the first occasion my Mama let me fetch the water on my own. It felt good to be a provider for the family who were hosting me.
Fetching the water is much easier said than done:
Transporting water, I saw from the women, is an art unto itself. The mitungi must be carefully balanced on two rocks beneath the spout and then held in place while the trickling water slowly fills it all the way to the top. And with water always in scarce supply, we could never afford to waste or spill a drop. When the cylindrical twenty litre container was full, it weighed more than twenty kilos.
More recently, I can think of an occasion at the Kisaruni High School, which is Free The Children’s first all-girls secondary school, and has 41 students who board there. When it first opened last spring, these girls came to the school and we all had a big sleepover party. It was such a lot of fun, and for many of these girls it was the first time they’d slept on a mattress.
It’s the feeling of true community in Kenya that I love. It seems to me that when people come together for the benefit of others, that’s when you get the most profound sense of community.
KA: What about repatriation? Do you find it difficult to adjust between living in your two different worlds?
RW: The first transition from Kenya back to Chicago was most difficult. I felt like a lost 8-year-old, trying to get used to life in America again after a year away. I found it hard to wear shoes, having been barefoot for so long. And I was full of anger, of judgment for the way things were done — for example, at people who ran the water for so long, at the extravagant amounts of food.
Huge wasteful, overpriced family dinners. Thoughtless waste of water, flushing the toilet so many times every day.
But I don’t feel that way now. Then, I was going through that time of life when everyone tries to work out who they are and feels a certain amount of anger. Now I accept that it’s not about everyone having the same; it’s about everyone having enough.
Today, whichever direction I travel in, I always feel that I’m going home to family.
On our November theme of Global Philanthropy…
KA: Over the last month, we’ve discussed — fairly heatedly — the growing trend towards volun-tourism. As part of your work with Free The Children and Me to We, you lead groups of people on international volunteer experience each year. Can the people who go on these trips, who lack language and cultural training, really accomplish much in such a short time?
RW: Volun-tourism can play a great part when it’s done responsibly. Our youth volunteer trips last three weeks, while our family and corporate trips are shorter at ten days. We regularly have employees of large companies like KPMG and Virgin Atlantic on our corporate trips.
After some orientation, our volunteers hit the ground running — they help with building schools, with clean water projects, they go into the community’s homes to help, they learn Swahili. For many of them, it is literally a life-changing experience. It gives them a different perspective on life and on their careers. It’s very positive for both the volunteers and for the communities they are helping.
Volun-tourism skeptics should maybe note that Robin herself first came to Kenya with an attitude of “What can Kenya do for me?” rather than “What can I do for Kenya?”, as can be seen in this extract from her book, describing an incident during her initial two months in Nairobi:
One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”
Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighbourhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.
KA: Which person or people, dead or alive, do you look up to most in your work?
RW: I would have to say the other team members of Free The Children and Me to We, both in Kenya and Toronto. They all work for the children, not the paycheck. The world may never know their names, but they work so hard and achieve so much for others.
KA: Are there any inspirational stories of theirs you can share with us?
RW: Spencer West, a speaker on the Me to We team, was born with a genetic disease, and lost both his legs at the hips when he was a child. We met in Kenya when he was on an international volunteer trip, helping to build a school there.
Next June, he is going to “Redefine Possible” and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in his wheelchair, in order to raise $500,000 to bring clean water programming to 12,500 people in East Africa.
You can’t get any more inspirational than that.
KA: And lastly — it’s the holiday season. We’re inundated with requests for giving. In your opinion, what’s the best way to spend our dollars (or pounds, or euros, or yen, or whatever) to help those in other parts of the world who have so much less than we do?
RW: Well — you could sponsor Spencer West on his climb and help those affected by the drought in East Africa, which is the worst in 60 years. Or you could buy your holiday gifts from the Me to We store, either in Toronto or online at www.metowe.com/shop.
The interview ends, and I thank Robin for giving her time, even when she has a hundred other things she could probably be doing, since in a few hours she will be flying back to her Kenyan home. I am awed by our conversation, by how much she has achieved in her short life — she is only 30 — and I feel humbled.
I tell her this. “People like you, who do so much with your lives, make me feel very small.”
There’s a slight pause at the end of the phone, then Robin says, “But… you’re a mother.”
I can’t count the number of times over the last fifteen years when, in answer to the question “What do you do?” I’ve said, “I’m just a stay-at-home mom.” Emphasis on the “just” — an apology for the mundanity of my existence. The counter-reaction, so often, is “But that’s a very important job!” in a slightly condescending tone that makes me feel, even more, that motherhood is merely a consolation prize for missing out on life’s other, more important achievements.
Robin’s tone holds none of this condescension. “You’re a mother,” she says, and it’s a statement of the obvious, that being a mother is an achievement in itself.
It occurs to me that her years with the mamas in Kenya have taught Robin the value of motherhood — a lesson that maybe passes by the young women growing up in our “developed” culture. It’s an irony, perhaps, that in our Western pursuit of progress and women’s rights, we have devalued the most important women’s right of all — that of pride in raising a strong next generation.
Robin, thank you. It was wonderful to talk to you. I hope we meet in person one day.
Quotations from “My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah.” Wiszowaty, Robin (2010-07-01), Perseus Books Group.
Img: Robin Wiszowaty — photo courtesy of www.metowe.com
RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner
RANDOM NOMAD: Adria Schmidt, Career Consultant at Violence Intervention Program & Former Peace Corps Volunteer
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