Susan Stickney Rohrer ’78
Out of Africa
By Mary Seymour ’80
As a child, Sue Rohrer dreamed of visiting Africa. She didn’t know why the continent drew her; she just knew the longing had always been inside. In 2000, as her 20-year marriage unraveled and she wondered what to do with her life, a friend invited Rohrer and her two eldest children on a trip to Africa. “When the plane landed and the door opened and I smelled the air, I just knew this was where I was supposed to be,” she recalled.
Rohrer has been to Africa 15 times since then, and in the process she discovered what to do with her life. In 2002 she founded the nonprofit organization Children of Tanzania (COT), which focuses on improving education for Tanzanian children. The idea for COT arose when Rohrer stopped in a village to pass out toys and was startled to see dozens of children who weren’t in school. After learning that their families couldn’t afford the $14 cost of the required uniform, she raised money back in the States, then arranged for village seamstresses to sew the uniforms. “We had no idea if could be done, but we did it,” said Rohrer of the plunge she took with her friend Rosarii Falvey. “Once we started with the uniforms, we saw other reasons why kids weren’t in school: girls are out getting water all day long, kids have malaria, there are no classrooms—the list goes on and on.”
Current projects include installing a kitchen and two classrooms in a primary school in a remote Masaai village, providing lunches for schoolchildren who previously suffered from malnutrition, and installing a well at a school in Kireree.
COT’s most ambitious ongoing project is modernizing the decrepit Endorofa Secondary School in Karatu. Home to 500 boys and girls, the school suffers from rotted buildings, broken beds, pit latrines, and a tar-blackened, unventilated kitchen. Rohrer and Lisa Oram, COT’s vice chair, have raised enough money to install tanks for the school’s immediate water needs. Next on the list are the kitchen and bathrooms. “I know if people were to see the school, they couldn’t turn their backs on it. But because people don’t see it, the challenge is portraying to them what we saw and what the schoolchildren need.”
Rohrer believes in helping people learn to change their situation so they can become self-sustaining. “I believe that education—especially for girls—is what will change Africa. They’ve learned how to grow better crops, how diseases are spread, how to form microenterprise groups. They’re learning that they don’t have to get married when they’re 14—that they can have a say in their future.”
Given so much need and limited resources, one would expect Rohrer to become discouraged. “It used to be very difficult to walk away from things. But now I realize that we’ll be back, and when we come back we’ll be able to help make changes.”
The dichotomy between her comfortable life in Old Greenwich, Connecticut and Africa’s glaring poverty is another potential sticking point; however, Rohrer has made peace with it. “I believe I have a really blessed life, and it’s my obligation to try and help,” she said. It wasn’t so easy at first—like the time she listened to horrific stories from former child soldiers at a Ugandan placement camp, then returned home to find her children waving their Christmas lists at her.
The well-buffered populace of Old Greenwich has provided generous and reliable support. COT publishes an annual newsletter that drums up donations, and the organization sells gift merchandise, including beaded ornaments and jewelry made by a microenterprise group of Masaai women. This year, donors have stepped up to fund the most expensive projects: $20,000 for the lunch program and $25,000 for the well in Kireree.
“You don’t need a lot of money to do things in Africa,” Rohrer explained. “For $20,000, you can completely change 400 children’s lives. That’s what inspires me and keeps me going. Somehow, this money keeps coming in and making a huge difference. There’s so much need in Africa, but it’s all about thinking about one person at a time. If you change one person’s life for the better, it has an amazing effect.”
For more information on COT, go to childrenoftanzania.com.