I’M ED­U­CAT­ING 1600 TAN­ZA­NIAN KIDS

Mum of four Gemma Sisia, 41, left her Guyra home for Africa as a 20-some­thing ready to change the world. She is now cel­e­brat­ing 11 years at The School of St Jude in Tan­za­nia. She talks to Lisa Mayoh

Sunday Mail - Body and Soul - - MY STORY -

“WGrow­ing to­gether

hen I was grow­ing up on a sheep farm an hour out of Guyra in NSW, if some­one had told me I would be mar­ried to an African man and liv­ing in Africa, I would have said that was ridicu­lous.

“I was un­der 25 when I came to Africa and I thought I was in­fal­li­ble. I sold my car, emp­tied my bank ac­counts, closed my credit card and got on the plane with $ 200 in my pocket and not a care in the world.

“I set off to teach math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence and sewing to girls in Kalungu, a ru­ral vil­lage in the mid­dle of Uganda. The years spent in Uganda were tough but re­ward­ing and that’s where I met my hus­band, Richard.

“I be­lieve ev­ery child – no mat­ter where they live or what colour they are – de­serves a good ed­u­ca­tion, a clean class­room and peo­ple who be­lieve in them. So I started St Jude’s in 2002 in Tan­za­nia, with an 18-year-old vol­un­teer teacher from Syd­ney and three stu­dents. “The school now has three cam­puses, al­most 1600 stu­dents get­ting a free qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, and one of the best aca­demic records in the coun­try. St Jude is an as­ton­ish­ing success for kids who would oth­er­wise have no hope and no fu­ture. The kids who I started the school with are now in the equiv­a­lent of year 10. They were tiny tots when they first came and now they are grow­ing up – the boys are taller than me!

“While I am so proud of the school, I also feel ex­hausted. It’s hard to bal­ance ev­ery­thing – your fam­ily say they don’t have enough time with you, staff say they don’t get enough time with you and I feel like I don’t spend enough time with vis­i­tors, donors and VIPs who come to the school.

“When I started it, the school needed 100 per cent of my time and I have got­ten it to the point where it needs about 20 per cent of my time. But I am still a per­fec­tion­ist. I go past the school gate and I no­tice the paint is peel­ing or the garden needs to be weeded. I am al­ways find­ing new jobs to be done. It’s hard to have a stan­dard in a coun­try where stan­dards just aren’t there. But things are chang­ing. We em­ploy 400 lo­cals and the schools are just fan­tas­tic – they look like they could be any­where in the world.

“I be­lieve in sus­tain­able staffing devel­op­ment to help the school con­tinue ex­pand­ing. In the long run, we really have to work on mak­ing us Western­ers re­dun­dant. A lot of peo­ple think Africa is a lost cause and maybe it is. There is mas­sive poverty and it’s really easy to get hung up on that, so I fo­cus on the in­di­vid­ual.

“My time will be worth­while if I have contributed to the hap­pi­ness of a kid, a teacher, a driver. To think I can change the fu­tures of 1600 chil­dren is be­yond de­scrip­tion. That’s how I cope each day - I lower ex­pec­ta­tions and fo­cus on chang­ing the in­di­vid­ual, not the en­tire con­ti­nent.

The next phase

“Africa will al­ways be my home now but I miss my fam­ily in Aus­tralia. My seven brothers get to have lunch to­gether on week­days – I just don’t have that.

“The past 10 years have been be­yond hard work. For the first five years it was more about the chal­lenge, but now the re­spon­si­bil­ity drives me. Of course I love it. I am so passionate about the school, and while it has been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, I have no re­grets.

“To other young peo­ple who want to make a dif­fer­ence, I would say do it. I did: we have 1600 stu­dents get­ting a good ed­u­ca­tion, 400 staff fam­i­lies who can af­ford food and 1600 sets of par­ents whom we are help­ing.

“What’s next? I have a prom­ise to ful­fil. When chil­dren first started at St Jude, I told them as long as they ap­pre­ci­ated their ed­u­ca­tion and lis­tened to the teach­ers, they would get to the ter­tiary level. That’s the next stage. From 2015, we will be send­ing out kids to univer­si­ties through­out Africa.

“Yes­ter­day, three kids said, ‘Good morn­ing – it’s great to see you.’ Then they shook my hand. I thought, ‘What gor­geous kids’ and all the headaches be­came worth it. Shy teach­ers who could hardly stand in front of a class­room are now prin­ci­pals.

“Sus­te­nance, sus­tain­abil­ity and break­ing the cy­cle – it’s what we’re about and will con­tinue to be about. As my fa­ther said, ‘If you do good things, good peo­ple will be at­tracted to it’.”

Gemma Sisia is in Aus­tralia now to raise funds. Tour dates are at www.schoolof­stjude.org/ sup­por­tUs/fundrais­ing-events

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