“That society is down on women. I try to empower them,” said the petite Susan Coopersmith about her volunteer work in a village of 3,000 people near Lake Victoria in east Africa, Tanzania where she has lived as primitively as the natives for about 2 l/2 years now. That’s in a one room mud hut with her cat where she has no running water or electricity. Food is in short supply this year because of a drought.
Originally from Massachusetts, the 57 year old Susan, ran a successful jewelry store in Bar Harbor for 30 years. Tired of the retail business, divorced and with a daughter now grown, something was missing from her life. Meanwhile, she had earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and women’s development from the University of Maine, Orono. Her field work was done in western Africa, Cameroon. She credits her grandmother for nurturing her love of travel and adventure because Susan accompanied her on trips to Cuba, Asia and Europe. She recalled telling a neighbor in Boston, when she was 8 years old, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew it would be in Africa. Susan had just returned from visiting her daughter in Bar Harbor following the birth of her second grandson when we met at the Hilltop Coffee Shop this afternoon. She flies back to Tanzania the end of this week after almost a month in the US. She has lived in Africa for a total of 12 years, including time in Nairobi, but she knows that time in Africa is drawing to a close.
With funding from the Netherlands, Susan runs several education programs focused on women’s education; only 10% of the girls there complete high school. To attend school, students need to have shoes, clothes and a tree seedling to plant near the school. (The last requirement is so that in twenty years or so, villagers will be able to harvest the trees for lumber for building.) There are many children in school. Parents know that l/2 the children will die before reaching the age of 5. Susan runs a program that donates prerequisite school supplies to orphans and other vulnerable children of all ages. She also runs a work-study program for young high school women between the ages of 14 – 19 years old. There are 30 women in that program and it is funded by private donations here in America. Please visit vematz.weebly.com for more on this program, which is still under construction.
“I can’t think of anything I really miss,” she says as she shows mhn.com a box of colored bandaids she has just purchased at a drug store to take back with her to Africa. “The children will love these bandaids. They will all want one after I give the first one out. There will be lots of booboos all of a sudden,” she said laughing.
But she does have more serious things to consider on her flight back and during the upcoming summer months. Her contract ends in August and she wants to return to Portland. The pull to see her two grandsons grow up in Bar Harbor is strong – very strong in her. And she will have to figure out a way to support herself here in Portland. She has numerous skills, but in her heart she wants to work in the large immigrant community here in Portland.
“Sometimes you do what you have to do,” she said referring to her recent delivery of triplets in the village. Both parents and the babies are infected with the HIV virus. One of the babies died. “Sometimes you do what you have to do,” she repeats softly.