What started as a tourist visit stirred deep love for Tanzania

Susan at Sasik shop in Zanzibar. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The 72-year-old American is a trained paediatric nurse hailing from Wisconsin. In 2001, she climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, which in itself was not an easy feat

By Anganile Mwakyanjala

“You can’t learn about people if you just fly in for a safari and fly out,” Susan Dillon Gold says.

The 72-year-old American is a trained paediatric nurse hailing from Wisconsin. In 2001, she climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, which in itself was not an easy feat.

The highest mountain in Africa has several routes to the summit, and none are easy. Susan took the Machame route, and it took her seven days to summit. By then, she was 50 years old. “I knew about Kilimanjaro when I read an article about climbing it, and it challenged and inspired me, so I knew I had to climb it,” she remembers.

“At no point did I let exhaustion make me quit because I knew if I turned back because I was tired, in a few minutes after turning back, I would be less tired but I would be mad at myself for stopping.”

“In difficult times like that, that’s when you learn about yourself and how much you are willing to do when you want something and what you will do to get it,” she says.

During the climb, when the porters and guides learned that she is a nurse, they asked her to come back as a healthcare provider.

“When they asked me to come back and help as a healthcare provider, I was touched. International nursing was something I was always interested in, and I said to myself, if I can climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I could do that,” Susan said.

That was the start of a new mission that would see Susan travel to Africa more than 34 times, having visited Tanzania more than 15 times.

Her first visit back to Africa was to Kenya in 2003, where she was assigned to work in a children’s home. In 2011, she came to Tanzania with college students from the University of Wisconsin.

She then came back in 2015 with more students, and in total, she has so far brought 132 students to Tanzania. She has also brought friends and family to the country.

I asked her if she brought her family on a safari. “It’s more than safari. I want to know the people of Tanzania. I want my family to know how beautiful Tanzania is, and you can’t do that if you fly in, go on a safari, and fly out,” she insisted.

And that is what Susan has been doing. She has been on a safari but also took time to visit different organizations and communities, taking her students to children’s orphanages and home centres where they would play a game of football.

“Those kids at the centre would always beat us in all the matches. We have played many times, and we have only been able to beat them once,” she said.

Susan firmly believes that all people are equal. She has her saying, “Tuko sawa,” and she has instilled that belief and practice in all the students she brings to Tanzania.

Over the years, Susan has seen so much progress in the areas of healthcare she and the students have been involved in. She is delighted with the steps Tanzania has taken to improve healthcare.

She was just from Amana Regional Referral Hospital, making a presentation. “The only thing that needs to be improved now is the traffic jam on Dar es Salaam roads. Cars are not moving,” she laughs. “I will never in a million years drive here (Dar es Salaam). You need to have the nerve of steel to do that.” After a short laugh, she let me know that at Amana, it was more than just making a presentation; it was also giving newborn babies and their mothers gifts she brought from America. “Who doesn’t love a new baby?” she asks. “We ask American mothers to welcome Tanzanian mothers to motherhood by gifting them clothes.”

Susan has done this in hospitals in Moshi and Amana, welcoming babies into the world. “Tuko sawa and all babies are a gift to the world,” she says with admiration in her eyes. “There is nothing worse than having something like resources, education, knowledge, or, as for me, clinical experience, and not sharing it. That’s a waste of life,” she remarked.

“I met a woman who had just had a caesarean section and didn’t know how to turn in bed without getting terrible pain, and I was able to help her with that.” Susan visits two times a year and works closely with Dr Omari Mahiza, a pediatrician at Amana Hospital.

Susan took her group from the University of Wisconsin to Zanzibar, where they visited Stone Town and went shopping for fabrics, woodwork, and t-shirts. “We bought t-shirts that say, ‘If you can’t climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, you can drink it,’ but I did climb the mountain,’’ Susan laughs.

They had dinner on the rooftop, listening to the rhythmic sounds of prayers and watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean. During their short stay in Zanzibar, they also visited the East African slave museum.

“With what is going on in the US with racism, debate on black history, and school curriculum, it is so important that my students see the reality.” Susan wanted her students not only to tour Zanzibar and bask under the sun while lying on the beach but also to do something with the community.

They met college students from Zanzibar, held discussions, and really got to know their peers. “This, for me, was the most important part of the trip, when two groups of people sit down and talk to each other, learning their commonality,” Susan said. They went to a preschool and read books to the kids at the Big Tree Nursery School. When they first visited the school, it only had two books, but now they have walls filled with books.

“The most important thing is to make sure that being in this life makes the world better,” she affirmed. Susan is always the one to lend a helping hand without a second thought, maybe because, as a trained pediatrician, that’s what they are trained to do.

During one of her trips to Arusha, she had just come off the airport and witnessed a horrific road accident that involved an old woman who was in a car with her daughter and granddaughter, all of whom were badly injured. Susan got off her bus and went to help.

By the time the ambulance arrived, Susan’s clothes were covered in blood, but there is no doubt that without her quick action, the situation would have been fatal.

Susan is no stranger to safari trips on the northern circuit. She has been to Ngorongoro, the Serengeti, and all the other national parks.

“Safari guides have the coolest job in the world,” she laments. “They get to drive in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and see things all the time. They get to show and teach people their wealth of knowledge. Your safari guides are a natural resource in your country. They represent your country. Some people only get to see your country through the eyes of your safari guides,” she said.

Susan has been on twenty-one safaris in Africa, so clearly she has seen a lot, but she still loves to see a giraffe running across the savannah.

She loves watching a family of elephants. She loves seeing guinea fowl and how silly they look while running. She is in awe of the majesty of a lion. She says, “I love how well your national parks are maintained and how you respect the wildlife in your country.”

Susan is a woman who has lived a life where she has faced her challenges head-on, from working as a healthcare provider daily, tackling its challenging environment, to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro at 50 years old.

Her resilience is astounding. She had a word of advice for the youth: “First and foremost, you have to believe in yourself that you can overcome challenges. Things don’t get better overnight.

“If you give up, you will never get to a place where it’s better. You have to think in small ways. Don’t think, ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have a house,’ but think about what you can do today to get you closer to your goal,” she advised.

“If you look at it in small steps, it is easier to not be overwhelmed. If you look at it in giant steps, you will be overwhelmed,” she asserted. “Believe in yourself and your ability, and that you deserve a good life.” With those words of wisdom, we shook hands. I asked her if she would be coming back again, and she said she would be coming back in July. She comes to Tanzania at least twice a year.