St Jude’s

by Tim Dawe

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The School of St Jude in northern Tanzania fights poverty through education. You won’t find it highlighted in glossy travel brochures. However, for the many travellers who want to visit and assist charitable organisations in developing countries, it’s a memorable destination and a worthwhile experience. While not the journey, it can be a fulfilling detour – with travel benefits.

The story of St Jude’s has been told through its inspiring, and indefatigable founder, Gemma Sisia OAM, a finalist for Australian of the Year and twice featured on ABC TV’s Australian Story. Gemma tells me as a young backpacker in East Africa she was appalled by local government schools and “naively” wondered why these kids “born with the same brains as you or me” didn’t have a quality education. (Most Tanzanians receive only primary schooling, which is conducted in Swahili. Only exceptional, or rich, children are taught in government secondary schools – in English.) Later with her Tanzanian husband Richard Sisia, and armed with her first donation of $10 plus the considerable assistance from her hometown Rotary clubs, The School of St Jude started at Arusha with one classroom, one teacher and three students – on a maize field donated by the Sisia family.

Today, 13 years on, St Jude’s boasts 1,850 students, mostly weekly boarders, in Years 1-12. It’s one of the best schools in Tanzania, regularly assessed in the top five. The annual selection process to find “the brightest of the poorest” is an institution. When the word is out that St Jude’s is looking to fill its yearly quota of 150, it is a sight to behold. On Friday afternoons in November more than a thousand young hopefuls and parents line up patiently in front of the gates. Then the assessment process begins.

Applicants must be in Year 1 in a government school – “if not, you are too rich”. They must have (or had) no sibling at the school – there’s a strict one-child-per-family policy. They must be living with parents or guardians. Home inspections and interviews determine they are the poorest of the poor. Then highly trained teachers assess the applicant’s potential, including their conception skills and attitude. It’s a rigorous process resulting in an exceptional child – perhaps one in a hundred – being awarded a full scholarship, and a new uniform that’s a recognised badge of honour.

St Jude’s offers academic excellence emphasising moral responsibility and ethical behaviour – and also tough love with strict rules. Every selected student understands their extraordinary privilege and works extremely hard. And if they don’t, there is someone else to replace them. Every student passes, overwhelmingly with As. Every student goes to university.

I spend a few days with the lower primary kids in one half of the Moshono campus (upper primary includes boarding houses close-by). I share their class lessons, their playtime and equipment, the regimentation of lunch for 700, assembly, library, the art and craft and music centres, and a whole building of computers. Nothing would be out of the ordinary for an Australian top-flight private school, except perhaps fundraising for poor African kids and parent-funded holiday ski trips. These kids are even driven to school, albeit in brightly coloured buses adorned with drawings of animals like Simba and Twiga.

All the school buses are emblazoned with “we love visitors”. And the school does; it receives about 2,000 visitors each year, some for a few hours and others, in groups or singly, for days or weeks, accommodated in motel-style rooms with full board. It is not just hospitality; it’s a strategy to spread the word all over the world. This necessitates a visitor centre of four full-time staff working seven days a week. There are also international volunteers in special non-local positions currently media, visitors and home visits – see box. But for visitor also read “traveller”.

The school makes an ideal base for travellers to explore this part of East Africa. Arusha is a bustling, fast-growing town of 350,000 residents. It’s a cool, leafy place and the centre for the emerging East Africa Community. It has large-scale conference facilities for the EAC courts and UN agencies and retains the Commission on Rwanda. Nearby is Arusha National Park, Tanzania’s smallest and most scenic. Its varied topography is dominated by Mt Meru (4,500m) and contains elephant, hippo, giraffe, leopard and buffalo and my favourite, the little dik-dik.

Arusha is also the starting point for the northern circuit safari that usually includes the boabs and elephants of Tarangire, Ngorongoro and its extraordinary crater, and the wildlife of the famous Serengeti Plain, to which we are all connected. For those wanting more than a game drive there’s the chance to climb Africa’s highest peak, Mt Kilimanjaro. Nearby is Kenya’s Amboseli National Park offering unforgettable sights of large herds of elephant with dramatic “Kili” as a backdrop. Arusha is served by Kilimanjaro International Airport at Moshi.

There are a thousand and one causes for Australians to give of their time, expertise or money. Why highlight The School of St Jude? Simply, it is the impact that a free, high quality education for the brightest of the poorest can make in a single generation. Not only is a child catapulted out of poverty, so too is their extended family. In a generation a conveyer belt of much-needed, highly skilled professionals joins the workforce, and the middle class, contributing much to their country’s economy and society. But importantly, they do so without being beholden to the tribal or political elites that so often constrain Africa.

Fighting poverty through education. Transformative.

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