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
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