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Meet The Teacher Educating A Generation Of African Children

How Gemma Sisia left country NSW to start one of Tanzania’s most successful schools

By Felicity Robinson

Growing up on a sheep property in northern NSW with her seven brothers was unusually good preparation for starting a school in Tanzania, says Gemma Sisia.

“I had a great practical education at home,” says the teacher and founder of The School of St Jude. “Because we lived far from town we had to learn how to fix fences, plumbing, fix the cars, sew, cook and everything. I learnt from an early age to find my own solutions to problems and that was a real blessing when I came to Tanzania.”

Gemma met her Tanzanian husband, Richard, while she was teaching in Uganda in her early 20s. When they married, Richard’s father gifted them two acres of land in Arusha, north-east Tanzania, and asked her if she could raise enough money to build a school for the village children.


I learnt from an early age to find my own solutions

“Thankfully, I had good friends back at home who helped me fundraise and we were able to raise enough money to build the first classroom, helped by teams of Rotary volunteers. I opened the school with three students in January, 2002, determined to make it work.”

Today, the School of St Jude provides free education to 1,800 primary and secondary students across three campuses, and supports over 400 students at more than 40 universities worldwide. The school selects bright children who would otherwise struggle financially to complete their education and provides everything from uniforms and books to meals, transport and boarding for older children. The school’s operating budget for this year is $10million – all raised by donations.

“I’m very grateful for the support, both on the ground and internationally,” says Gemma. “I hope to see a community full of educated alumni who are making serious changes not only in their families but in their community and country.”

A group of supporters from Gemma's hometown working on the first building

Tell us about the moment that changed everything…

Marrying my husband! I was excited about building a family with him and his family’s support really helped me get the school up and running. We now have four wonderful children and my only regret is that if I’d married my husband sooner, we could have had a few more children by now.

Why was a school so desperately needed?

Tanzania is home to around 60 million people. But there are only about 20,000 primary schools and less than 5,000 middle secondary schools, which go up to the age of 16. Private schools could only be afforded by a few from well-off backgrounds. Therefore, we wanted to build a good-quality private school that did not charge school fees, so people who are from underprivileged backgrounds could attend.

Did you ever imagine you’d end up running a primary school, two secondary schools, and a program to support students through university?

No, not at all! Growing up in rural New South Wales, I actually wanted to be a doctor, which really would never have worked out as I faint at the sight of blood. I didn’t get good enough grades to go to medical school and instead choose to study science at university. While I perhaps didn’t take my science degree as seriously as I should have, university did lead me to teaching, which eventually led to starting St Jude’s.

Even though I could not be a doctor myself, I am now proud I am producing doctors. If I had become a doctor, I would have supported or helped around 60,000 patients in a working life of 40 years. But now I produce over 200 graduates from our schools each year. The impact that those 200 graduates are going to have in the community is a million times more than what I could have achieved as an individual… so God works mysteriously, hey!

Gemma with the first doctors from St Jude's inaugural year 12 class

What is a moment that has made it all worthwhile?

Several moments make it all worthwhile, such as when I bump into alumni in their professional careers, whether they’re a doctor, a teacher, a safari driver, a banker, an entrepreneur. Even the phone I’m using was purchased from one of our alumni, whohas a number of phone specialty shops! All these give me a lot of pride and make it all worth it.

When you’re not running St Jude’s, what do you do?

I love gardening and just being at home with my family. I wouldn’t call it a hobby but I love being a mum and a wife.

What’s your worst habit?

I’m impatient and I’m always seeing things we can improve on. Sometimes I forget to appreciate what we have accomplished already.

Finish this sentence: Nothing feels better than…

Seeing the impact of our alumni on their families and the community.

Find out more about The School of St Jude here. You can make a donation, or find out how to sponsor a student (or become part of a group sponsoring a class) here.



BY Felicity Robinson

Felicity is PRIMER's co-founder

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