Daily Herald
A search for meaning took Schaumburg native to Kenya
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 9/29/2010 11:41 AM

Robin Wiszowaty started her nationwide book tour, where it all started: in Schaumburg.

The 1999 Schaumburg High School graduate and published author headlined her first book signing last week at Borders in Schaumburg, after the U.S. release this month of her first book: "My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah."

After interviews with WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" and ABC7's morning show, she left Saturday for New York. The Daily Herald caught up with her just before she left, when she conceded the tour already had become a whirlwind and something she never envisioned.

"I'm just a girl going through life. I never imagined that I'd ever do something so spectacular as to live in a place like Kenya," Wiszowaty says, "let alone share the story."

Yet, she did both. And in Canada, where the book was released last year, it has become a best-seller. She and her publisher, Me to We/Greystone Books, based in Toronto, cautiously hope for the same result in this country.

Her 300-page book details her yearlong journey spent living with a tribal Maasai family, in a mud hut made of cow dung, located in a remote region of southwestern Kenya.

What brought her there, she says, was a longing to find a deeper meaning in life and the chance to immerse herself in a new culture.

"I knew I wanted to go as far from my current reality as possible, and I figured living with a tribe in rural Africa was about as far as I could go," Wiszowaty adds.

Her life up until that point had been traditional. The middle of three children, who had attended Hoover Elementary, Jane Addams Junior High School and Schaumburg High School, she swam competitively and ran track, while also appearing in school musicals. She even spent summers lifeguarding for the Schaumburg Park District.

At the University of Illinois, Wiszowaty set out to major in speech and communications, but early on she looked into a study-abroad program where she might expand her perspective on life.

One of her professors made some connections with a University of Minnesota program that resulted in the chance for her to live with the Maasai for a yearlong independent study.

"Literally, the elders sat in a circle to decide which family I would stay with," she says.

Ultimately, she was adopted by a family that consisted of 14 people, including two wives, their combined children, two herds boys, a grandmother and two AIDS orphans living with them.

"When I was adopted as a Maasai daughter, I needed permission to go anywhere," Wiszowaty says. "I lost all sense of independence and privacy, but I learned I don't need those to survive."

She quickly adapted to the Maasai way of life, of waking to haul 5-gallon drums of water on her back to make morning tea and take bucket baths, before using a machete to cut firewood and reshape it for household tools.

By midmorning, it was time to go out and gather more water before making the noon main meal of porridge mashed out of corn meal. On alternating days when she didn't need to cut firewood, she and her "mother" would wash clothes by hand for all 14 family members.

It was exhausting but humbling, too, Wiszowaty says. She learned new ways of doing things and valued relationships with her new family.

"I saw heartfelt generosity and respect for elders," she says. "It was redefined for me what it means to take care of someone else, and above all, I learned the value of living in community."

Her story tells of a budding romance and of all of her conflicting thoughts as she struggled to come to terms with merging their two worlds.

In the end, Wiszowaty has chosen to stay in Kenya. Not with the Maasai tribe, but with a humanitarian agency called "Free the Children," the world's largest children's network of children helping other children through education.

Wiszowaty now serves as program director in Kenya, living in a compound in another region of the country, implementing the program's "adopt a village" holistic development model.

She works with a field team, conducting needs assessment surveys, while working with women's cooperative groups, called "merry-go-rounds," that empower women to improve the infrastructures of their community.

For Wiszowaty, she knows now that her search for meaning in life led her to accept an opportunity that turned out to be life-changing and empowering. She hopes her book helps other realize they, too, have the potential to change the world.

"I believe opportunity is not a chance, but a choice," she says, "and that we get to choose the kind of life we want to lead."