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Education is Power: Gemma Sisia

If heaven actually exists, then starting up a school in Africa is a surefire way to get there. There’s something about Gemma Sisia, though, that tells us that she did it with more than just the afterlife in mind. The kind of woman whose mere presence is a benefit to the greater good of humanity, Gemma is somewhat of a celebrity in the altruistic world. Her School of St Jude in Tanzania has granted her with an Order of Australia, a wide array of speaking engagements and even material for a book, which fast became a best seller when it was released in 2007. She’s in town for the Zonta International Woman’s Day Event, and will be speaking at Sydney’s Parliament House tonight… but first, she spoke to us.

Gemma Sisia

After Gemma completed her Diploma of Education, she moved to Uganda and worked there as a volunteer for three years. She quickly realised that it was “only education, not handouts, that was going to empower people and free them from the downward spiral of poverty into which most of them were born.” Although she dreamed of setting up her own school at even that early stage, she didn’t exactly plan on building one any time soon. And so she started sponsoring students in Uganda “who showed aptitude, potential and a good attitude to work.”

Things got a little serious when Gemma took a short trip to Tanzania to go on a safari, and ended up falling in love with a local. Rookie mistake. The pair had a long-distance relationship for nine years before Gemma decided to move to Tanzania to be with him. With a gift of a piece of land from her father-in-law, Gemma was able to turn the move into something extraordinary. She began the process of opening the school she had always dreamed of – but the challenges were plentiful, as she elaborates: “Besides finding the money I had to find competent labourers – brickies, carpenters, plumbers, electricians … everyone will tell you he is an expert! There was a decided difference in expectations of standards of workmanship and we are still battling that one. I don’t think there is a 90 degree angle in any of our earlier buildings besides the ones built by the volunteer Rotary teams from Australia! I guess we’re lucky we don’t have earthquakes here.”

That beginning was eight years ago, and it started with three students and one teacher. Today the school educates more than 1300 students up to Form 2, Australia’s equivalent of year 8, on three different campuses. Listing the “hard work, patience, perseverance, determination and support” from the Australian and African communities, particularly the Rotary clubs, as the main reasons behind the school’s growth, Gemma claims that the real success has been in the school’s staff development. “Many started as rather inexperienced but keen teachers and now have taken on huge responsibilities as Headmasters, Deputies, Academic Heads and Heads of Departments. And our non-academic staff members have also honed their skills, embraced new challenges and achieved such heights in their careers that they would never have thought possible,” she explains.

“It’s one of the most gratifying rewards to see a young single mum from a local village who was destined for a life of hard manual labour now running an efficient team of 20 cleaners, taking English lessons and mastering Microsoft Word!”

Of course, creating meaningful employment is just one of the benefits – Gemma maintains that this was created for children, and witnessing their progress has been the greatest reward, such as “watching a student who, in the previous year, spoke minimal English and had little confidence, stand up and confidently debate the need to educate females in Africa.”

Gemma’s philosophy on life is based on fact: “Education brings knowledge and knowledge is power. Without it, you are at the mercy of those in powerful positions who are not always the most scrupulous or honourable people. Unless a population is educated it is vulnerable to the whims of these people and lives in fear and repression due to ignorance and powerlessness. I truly believe that St Jude’s students will leave with the skills and capabilities to become compassionate, honourable and honest leaders in the many areas that their country needs – education, health, business, politics, finance and law.”

Some of what Gemma will be speaking about for International Woman’s Day:
Women need to be aware of the huge divide there is between the women who enjoy and benefit from a quality education and those around the world who never get the opportunity… something that is often seen in some countries as a luxury. It shouldn’t be a luxury - it should be the right! In the developed countries we spend too much time focusing on the divide between the opportunities and wages for men and women. The gap between the opportunities for women in developed countries and underdeveloped countries is much bigger and far more devastating. Imagine what the world would be like if all the women were educated and empowered…

As for the young people in Australia, Gemma advises them to “appreciate your education, follow your dreams and don’t listen to anyone who tells you ‘it can’t be done’.”

Gemma will be speaking from 6pm to 8.30pm at the Speaker’s Garden in Parliament House. For more information, visit the Zonta website.
For more information about St Jude’s or to make a donation, please visit www.schoolofstjude.co.tz.


words: Seema Duggal

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