Marilyn Parver hit a dead end emotionally in her late fifties. She was not ready to lunch with friends, compare medical issues and pretend she’d had a fun afternoon. “I was feeling too young to be acting so old,” says the former Mrs. Georgia, celebrity make-up artist, television producer and wildlife photographer (now a grandmother). “Nothing stimulated me anymore. I needed to stop thinking about getting older and all that goes along with it. I was sad and my daughters picked up on it.”
As Parver approached her 60th birthday, her youngest daughter, Kelly, suggested that she dig deep into her heart, consider all the choices she could make, and then do something. Parver thought of William Nairuko, a Kenyan Maasai Chief she had befriended on one of her many photography trips to Kenya. She’d stayed in contact with both Nairuko and Maasai guide Wilson Lolpapit. When Nairuko wrote of his frustration that so many young people were illiterate, Parver knew there were NGOs that offer aid in Africa. She decided she would go to Africa, learn about the issues, bringing her computer so she could try to put Nairuko’s village together with people who would help.
MORE ON LIFE REIMAGINED: The Power of Experience
And so, at 60, Parver gave up her comfy life in Kingman, Arizona and went alone to Kenya to live in the traditional Maasai lifestyle for six months.
“Of course that sounded crazy--living in the middle of nowhere with no roads, no power, and little water,” she says. “It seemed too unreal to consider, but I realized it was just what I needed.” Parver saw it as a time to clear her mind of trivial problems that occupied too much space. She needed to be challenged again. And she wondered, could one woman really make a difference?
Fearing that Michael, her husband of 38 years, would never agree to this “crazy scheme,” she started planning secretly by e-mail with her Maasai friends. On New Year’s Eve, she wrote him a letter telling him that she was leaving April 1. “It took him a few days to digest it all, but as unhappy as he was about my plan, he knew I was determined…and he let me go.”
MORE ON LIFE REIMAGINED: Life Lessons from the Queen of Reinvention
Parver stuffed a duffel with her camera, computer, cell phone, disinfectants and meds, and set off. Arriving in Loita Hills, she felt as if she had landed on a foreign planet. There were livestock everywhere -- donkeys in the kitchens and baby goats too. The homes were dark, even in the daytime. Parver discovered that visiting as a tourist was entirely different from moving into Lolpapit’s family compound.
“Very quickly I forgot that I was white, especially since there were no mirrors,” she says. She may have forgotten, but the Maasai children did not. “I will never get used to the fear the young children had when they saw me,” she says.
She hated the fleas, the flies, and especially the dreaded Nairobi beetles. She loved the sweet chai. “I could not chew the meat as they eat old cattle, but I have drunk cow blood…it is best mixed with milk.” Twice a day, Parver would take her computer and modem to a hill high enough to pick up an Internet connection from a booster tower in Tanzania—always with an escort lest she be attacked by a troop of baboons. The connection was so unstable that Marilyn would pre-write her e-mails so all she had to do was press send. Although her knowledge of the Maasai tribal language MAA was very limited, she made herself understood with few words.
Parver found the key to mastering cultural differences: keeping an open mind and a loving heart. At least one aspect of Maasai was easier than living in the States: there was no stigma being a 60-year-old woman in this culture because the Maasai respect the wisdom that comes with age. In Loita Hills, Parver was anything but invisible.
RELATED: It's Time to Lighten Your Load
Parver’s Maasai sojourn has reshaped her life with new vitality and purpose. She’s back in the U.S. and has raised $15,000 through her Loita Hills Maasai Project to purchase 1,400 solar lights so that Maasai children can study after dark. This fall, she returns to Loita Hill to distribute enough lights for every child in three schools; the money she’s raised will also finance a survey for a new water project, and she has a photo safari in the works to fund a solar well. Parver plans to be in Loita Hill as it is built, just as she personally hands out every light. This is a person-to-person project, and she wants the Maasai to know that these gifts come from real people, many of them American kids.
“The Maasai changed my life as much as I hope to change theirs,” she says. “I now face things with much more patience and total appreciation of what I have. If the Maasai can smile through the extreme life they lead, how can I spend a moment to complain about anything?”