Robin Wiszowaty
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Robin Wiszowaty

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Band Spoken Word


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The best kept secret in music


"The Toronto Star"

Tracy Hanes Special to the Star

We Day 2010
Read more about Free the Children and We Day
Global Voices

As Robin Wiszowaty and Roxanne Joyal can tell you, empowerment happens not through grandiose gestures, but one small step at a time.

Sometimes, it’s one brick at a time. Jane, a woman Wiszowaty has worked with in Kenya, can’t wait until her new house is finished — a process that’s taken more than three years.

In the rural Maasai Mara region, where the normal abode has mud walls and grass roofs, Jane’s simple home will be a symbol of pride and accomplishment: It’s the first brick house in the entire region.

“Jane is one of our women’s group leaders and she wanted to use herself as an example to illustrate what can happen when women work together in solidarity,” says Wiszowaty, Kenya program director for Free The Children, a Toronto-based charity that implements long-term development projects in partnership with local communities around the world.

Wiszowaty left her suburban life in Illinois in her early 20s to go to Kenya, where she lived with a Maasai family in a tiny hut made of cow dung, and developed a passion for the people and culture. Last year, she released My Maasai Life, a memoir of her experiences.

“Women are the backbone of Maasai society,” Wiszowaty explains. “They look after the kids, cook meals over fire, collect firewood, walk miles to gather water, wash clothes by hand. They are so strong and endure so much.”

The women’s challenges include access to clean water, sanitation and poverty. The lack of income makes it difficult to provide proper food and nutrition, let alone an education for their children. Education is provided free for children up to the equivalent of Grade 8, but must be paid for after that.

Joyal, a founding member of Free The Children and Me to We, leads the charity’s social and economic empowerment initiatives in Kenya and other countries. She says FTC’s Adopt a Village model, which provides education, health care, water, sanitation and alternative income projects, will ensure community members and their children can break the cycle of poverty.

Joyal says when women have extra income, they tend to spend it on their households and their children, buying things such as books and nutritious foods.

FTC workers teach women the importance of washing their hands and boiling water to reduce disease, as well as educating them about money management and comparison shopping.

“We’ve set up some hand-washing stations and the women get so excited,” says Joyal. “I heard one say to another the other day, ‘Guess what I just did! I washed my hands!’ ”

One FTC initiative has been to bring women together in support groups to encourage them to work together. They create a “merry go-round” system, where everyone contributes to a collective fund they can access for things such as buying a goat to provide the family with milk or replacing the grass roof on their home with a tin roof.

The women, who “spent hours and hours making rope and charcoal for pennies” are also learning more effective ways to earn income.

“One way is beekeeping, and we have launched Me to Bee Honey,” says Wiszowaty. “The women were already beekeeping, but we’ve taught them about bee biology and introduced higher-producing hives. It’s incredible: the honey they sell is currency in their hands. “

Joyal is creating a Me to We Artisans program, which will teach the women to create jewellery inspired by traditional Maasai beadwork, but adapted for a mainstream market. The first pieces of the collection will be unveiled at We Day.

As important as the extra income is, Joyal says the program also helps build self-confidence.

“When we were starting the artisan program, we decided we needed a Maasai woman to explain the purpose of the project and offer guidance and we chose Robin’s Maasai mama, Leah,” she says. “She’s now a full-time employee of the project and works with 300 women. She has really blossomed as an individual.”

By boosting the women’s self-esteem and business skills, Joyal says they can take on greater leadership and decision-making responsibilities in their villages.

Although empowering the Kenyan women is paying off, it’s not always easy in the traditionally patriarchal Maasai society. But since FTC only works in villages where it’s been invited, the communities tend to be receptive.

“Sometimes, we drink many cups of tea to get the chief’s or elders’ blessing,” notes Joyal.

“Women need to be empowered but only at the rate men allow them to be,” says Wiszowaty, who says that men’s groups and gender-sensitivity training are helping change male attitudes. “The men very much want a better life for their kids and recognize that will come through education.”

Joyal believes the young males of the Maasai villages will be more enlightened, now that girls are attending school with them and they realize how bright and capable they are.

Another obstacle has been finding a way for the girls to get an education while still fulfilling their duties at home.

“Typically, we were seeing two scenarios,” says Joyal. “A family might only send one child to school and, typically, that would be a boy. One of the girls’ responsibilities is to help the mamas get water, which might be five times a day, carrying 40-litre jugs. We have built a clean water project at the school, where the girls can fill up their jerry cans with clean water after school and take it home.”

Wiszowaty is excited about what she describes as a “big-rub-your-hands-together, drum roll” project that will open in January: an all-girls boarding school for high school students, starting with 25 Grade 9 students, and then adding a new grade each year.

Irish-born Nobel Laureate and peace activist Betty Williams, president of the World Centers of Compassion for Children International, says initiatives such as cultivating female entrepreneurial skills and encouraging education for girls will prove what she’s always known.

“When you empower women, it’s very powerful stuff. They will do what needs to be done, and do it against all odds. I’ve never seen courage like the courage of women.”

Building on tradition

Through a Free the Children initiative, the women of the Maasai Mara in Kenya will be using their traditional skills to help create income for their families.

A preview of the new Me to We Artisans collection will be unveiled at We Day, showcasing original “wearable art” designs inspired by traditional Maasai beadwork, says Roxanne Joyal of Free the Children.

The handmade pieces have been adapted for the North American market. For example, earrings will be made from silver or stainless steel instead of wire, and the leather will be of better quality than what the women use for their own jewellery.

The pieces will be sold at Me to We speaking engagements and proceeds will go to the artisans, who will use the income to benefit their household and children, says Joyal.

The beads used are hand-blown glass from the Czech Republic. Joyal says beads have been part of the Maasai culture for generations, and used to be traded for ivory, fabric or slaves.

“The Maasai women are intuitively connected to beadwork,” she says. “This will give them the opportunity to unleash their creativity for their own economic benefit.”

— Tracy Hanes - Tapping into the power of women

"Students gather at ACC for "We Day" celebration"

Some of the world's most influential social activists gathered with Toronto schoolchildren on Thursday morning, at an event targeting positive change around the world.

Some 20,000 students filled the Air Canada Centre for We Day, singing, cheering and dancing during a day of appearances from Olympian Alexandre Bilodeau, award-winning author Deepak Chopra and Canadian musician K'naan, among others.

We Day, a Free the Children event, is designed to launch young student ambassadors into a year's worth of charity work in their local communities and abroad.

To date, We Day has helped raise more than $5 million for Free the Children programs.

Robin Wiszowaty, a spokeswoman for Free the Children in Kenya, told CTV's Canada AM on Thursday that the message was about empowering youth to help change the world.

At the age of 21, Wiszowaty moved to Kenya and lived in a mud hut. She wrote a book titled "My Maasai Life" about the lessons of respect and generosity she learned during her journey.

"I also learned that there is no template that we need to live our life by, that we can choose every day who we want to be, and the scenario we want to be in," she said in an interview from the Air Canada Centre.

She added that young Canadians don't have to move to Kenya to make a difference, but can determine their own way to help.

Other scheduled speakers included Nobel Peace Laureate Betty Williams; Cherie Blair, wife of the former Prime Minster of the United Kingdom, and former child ;soldier Michel Chikwanine.

Chikwanine joined Free the Children four years ago after he met founders Craig and Marc Kielburger.

Enlisted to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of 10, Chikwanine said he has struggled with his experiences and sought a productive outlet through which to help.

"There are so many struggles that everybody goes through every single day," he told CTV's Canada AM. "But we are not supposed to look at them as struggles, rather look at them as opportunities for us to move forward as human beings, and move a message of peace as well."

We Day is part of a larger Free The Children initiative that includes a school fundraising program that has helped build 150 houses in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, China, Haiti and Sri Lanka.

"In the last year, We Day's inspirational messages propelled students into action volunteering over one million hours of service and raising $1.5 million for local causes and $3 million for global causes," co-founder Craig Kielburger said in a statement.

The event is streaming live online at

A television special, "CTV Presents: We Day 2010," will air on Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET.
- CTV News


Still working on that hot first release.



As a highly sought after speaker and author of My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah, Robin passionately shares her story about her remarkable voyage through some of the most remote areas of East Africa.

Growing up in suburban Illinois, Robin Wiszowaty never pictured herself hauling water on her back four times a day up a dusty footpath. She never pictured herself meeting terminal patients in an Aids ward. Yet in her early twenties Robin embarked on an incredible journey that should shake her from complacency, take her to unimaginable places and change her life forever.

Robin has graced the stage with distinguished speakers such as Al Gore, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mia Farrow, former Survivor castmate and activist Ethan Zohn, Jane Goodall and the Dalai Lama to name a few.

Robin splits her time between Toronto, ON, Canada and her adoptive home of Kenya. A motivational speaker, community development worker and author, Robin has devoted her life to helping others.