by Fiona Crawford - October 11th, 2011
There are plenty of us who dream of making a difference in the world, and starting a school in Africa fits that noble-but-never-going-to-happen cliché. So we us sit up and take note when we hear of someone who’s actually gone out and done it.
Gemma Sisia is a country girl from Guyra in New South Wales (I’ve personally never heard of the place, nor driven through it on our long, family road trips—methinks it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Armidale, but then my geography is muy hazy).
Anyway, Sisia headed to Africa for a two-year trip to work in a school, fell in love with a Tanzanian man, and eventually married him after a long courtship and largely without her family’s approval. She then set up a groundbreaking school named St Jude’s in honour of the patron of hopeless causes.
Australian Story fans might have seen Sisia and St Jude’s featured some time ago. Though I’m a big Australian Story fan (and regular sobber—goddamn, that show can be a tearjerker), I can’t say I saw that episode.
Instead I heard about the school from some friends whose company, YLead, fundraises for it and takes students to visit the school annually (my brother also travelled with them last year to shoot a documentary and came back raving about the school).
The difference with St Jude’s—apart from the fact that it was founded and is run by an Australian woman—is that the entry is competitive, and the school only takes children who have both the aptitude and the attitude. And even then only takes one from each family. Though heartbreaking in practice, the thinking is that they want to share the opportunities and education around.
The school’s gone from strength to strength, but it’s actually Sisia’s mix of warmth, pragmatism, determination, and vision that has made it possible in the face of many, many obstacles. In fact, the overriding thought I had while reading her autobiography, entitled St Jude’s, was that I couldn’t do what she’d done. There were too many incidents that would have seen me defeated.
That’s not to say that I’m without pluck, but I think Africa is challenging at the best of times and particularly challenging to those (OCD) of us who like order. Sisia is the lone girl in a family of eight children and grew up on a farm on rural New South Wales.
Salt of the earth and able to hold her own with the boys, she can clearly take things in her stride. Like the Masai tradition of spitting on a child’s face when it’s the first time they’ve met them. Hmmm, pretty sure that would do me in. That and incompetent and corrupt builders, who lack the expertise or the motivation to do a good job.
But Sisia has triumphed—even if it’s meant her climbing on roofs to fix structures, knocking down and rebuilding brick walls, and digging trenches herself. She seems to have done it with her sense of humour intact too, with the book proving self-deprecating and surprisingly light and wry at every page turn.
If there are two things that surprised me, it’s how much religion and memoir feature within the book’s pages. I’d expected more about the school, but while it’s there, it’s less prominent than the title implies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Sisia is fascinating and fun. The book literally starts with her birth and traces her growing up and family’s tale, which in many ways helps explain just how she’s managed to make the school such a success.
Still, the religion is something that I wasn’t overly sold on, even though I was raised Catholic and understood what Sisia was on about. Credit where credit’s due, though: she takes the mickey out of herself, acknowledging that not everyone believes in the powers of prayer the same way she does and backing off when she realises she’s laying it on a bit thick.
But I wanted something a little more and a bit different. Having heard lots about the school from friends and my brother, I was incredibly interested in the school and felt that the information the book contains about it is fairly cursory.
That has something to do with the fact, of course, that the book was written and published almost five years ago in 2007, when St Jude’s was effectively still in its infancy. The book Sisia might write now would likely feature the school more prominently. My hope is that she either writes a sequel or releases a revised, updated version of St Jude’s.
That said, there were two moments (one an oldie, and one a newie) that made the book worth reading for me, and that can be applied to life more widely. The first was what helped Sisia out of an I’m-not-sure-I’m-making-a-difference slump, and the second how and why she makes the school work in Africa:
Two men were once walking along a beach together […] It was just after a storm and the beach was strewn with flotsam and jetsam. Stranded all the way along the beach were thousands and thousands of starfish, still alive but slowly drying out in the sun’s heat. One of the men walked over to them but the other stopped every few paces, picked up a starfish, and threw it back into the sea.
‘What are you doing that for?’ asked the first man. ‘You know it’s not going to make a difference. There are too many starfish and only one of you.’
‘No,’ agreed his friend, bending down and picking up a starfish. As he placed it in the shallows and picked up another, he said: ‘But it makes a difference to this one. And this one. And this one.’
One of the great things about living in Africa is you can say, ‘To hell with the rules!’ If I want to put up a building, I pace out the dimensions myself. To decide where the windows should go, I wander around with a piece of chalk and mark them out. I’m completely free, not bound by someone else’s idea of what you can or can’t do. When you’re not worried about what other people are saying, you begin to think only in terms of how you can make your dreams a reality…