Susan Wells was just days into a planned month-long stay in the Tanzanian village she’d made her second home when regional police found her body.
The Ontario social worker arrived in Arusha last week, the latest of a half-dozen sojourns there. She was working with aid organizations in a centre for women and children.
Local police believe Ms. Wells was killed by someone she knew. Neither the Tanzanian embassy nor Canada’s Foreign Affairs department would confirm her death was a homicide. Nor would they comment on rumours that police have a suspect in custody who is one of the young men Ms. Wells worked with – youth she called “her boys” well into their 20s. Her family is still waiting for word on when her remains will be returned to Canada.
“We haven’t had any official communication from Tanzania yet,” said Joseph Sokoine, with Tanzania’s high commission in Ottawa. “Police are still doing the investigation.”
As her friends and family wait for answers, they’re left struggling to reconcile her death with the capable, compassionate 41-year-old woman they say knew the risks and knew what she was doing.
“She was part of the community there,” said Rev. Brian Goodings, a friend of the family in Collingwood, Ont. “She had well-established contacts. She was certainly going back into a village that she knew.”
Mr. Goodings has been in touch with Ms. Wells’s parents and older brother, who have not commented. “Do you have kids? You can probably guess [how they’re doing],” he said.
Ms. Wells caught the foreign-aid bug while on a trip to Ecuador about a decade ago. But it was her first trip to an area of East Africa better known for safaris and Mount Kilimanjaro that made the most lasting impression.
In a 2008 article on Simcoe.com, she talked about how visiting Tanzania made her hungry for longer-term volunteer work. “My expectations went right out of the window,” she said. “You realize how privileged we are in Canada.”
Joanna Smith, who worked with Ms. Wells years ago at Family Services of Peel Region in Ontario, recalls the impact of that Tanzanian trip. “After the first time she went, the work she was doing [in Canada] just seemed ridiculous compared to the stuff she was doing there, the conditions the kids were in,” Ms. Smith said. “Every minute she spent trying to get back there. These kids became her family.”
Even when she was “home” – living in Mississauga, doing social work in the Toronto area – Ms. Wells seemed to be itching to get back to her life in Arusha, friends say. She held many fundraising events, selling a friend’s hand-made Christmas cards and Tanzanian handicrafts and using the cash to buy supplies for the youth she was working with. She also sold “sponsorships”: $40 bought a month of secondary school for a kid who would otherwise be on the street; $20, a month of health care.
Ms. Smith recalls an indomitable colleague in Peel. “We fought battles together. We were on strike for six weeks – she was like the driving force, keeping people going when they were tired and cold and didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “She was very, very strong mentally. She could withstand hardship and rough times. … She wanted to be doing work that’s important and that mattered. And she has a lot of courage.”
In an e-mailed statement, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jessica Seguin said Ottawa’s thoughts “continue to be with the family and friends of the Canadian citizen who passed away in Tanzania. Out of respect for the family and to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned, further details on this case cannot be released.”