“We love visitors!” It’s impossible to miss the blue words emblazoned on the back of the bright yellow school buses belonging to The School of St Jude in Arusha, Tanzania.
It’s also impossible not to feel welcome from the moment you set foot on the Sisia Primary Campus in Moshono. Granted, Tanzanians are well known for their greetings and one of their most customary words is Karibu – meaning ‘you’re welcome’, but the visitor team at St Jude’s do their utmost to ensure your visit is fully immersive.
We arrived at St Jude’s halfway through our daughter Kate’s two-year tenure there as a graphic designer in the Marketing team. We planned our visit around the annual school celebration of St Jude’s Day; and factored in a safari, given Arusha is the gateway to a number of national parks.
Our guide for our four-day visit is Frank, a fresh St Jude’s graduate undertaking a year-long internship with the Visitor team as part of his Community Service Year, before commencing university. His first-hand experience makes him an authentic and invested host. At the visitor centre, an introductory video gives us the inspirational backstory to the school’s small beginnings: from three students in 2002, to 1,800 across two campuses in 2019.
On day one, Frank gives us a tour of the primary campus, situated below stunning Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second highest mountain. It’s jacaranda time and in the morning, the students grab brooms and willingly help to sweep up the purple-carpet playground. Australian students would never embrace a task with such enthusiasm. I’m surprised at their cooperative willingness to help without complaining.
On entering a grade four music class, we are greeted with a loud, unified chorus of, “we love visitors” and I find myself learning some drumming alongside a couple of eager 11 year olds. In the well-resourced library, Frank and I take turns reading aloud to a group of fifth graders. I’m impressed by how consistently attentive, respectful and polite the students are.
In the assembly hall at the centre of the campus, seated with 800 students, we share warm, slightly sweet porridge for morning tea and kidney bean stew with rice for lunch. I watch some students help serve it up, table by table, and I’m amazed at the systematic way it all works. The teachers also eat with the students and as we eat, we’re greeted warmly by some of them who want to know a bit about us. With more than 1,200 visitors a year, we’re not a novelty; yet we are received with warmth and grace.
One afternoon, we take the school bus to visit the home of Justina, a grade five student who lives with her older sister and father. Four nights a week, she boards at the Moviara Boarding Campus, a short walk through Moshono village from Sisia campus, going home to her family three nights a week.
We enter a single windowed room inside a basic brick compound, furnished with one double bed, a sofa, a coffee table and assorted possessions in stacked boxes against the wall. I foolishly think this is just one room of a larger house. Not so. This room is the sum total of their existence. There is no power, no running water and a kerosene burner for cooking. Justina’s elder sister graciously serves us sweet tea and peanuts, and we converse with the help of a St Jude’s teacher.
“How has being at St Jude’s changed Justina?” I ask her father, a cobbler.
“Justina is doing so well, she really wants to study and now she wants to be a teacher,” he responds, his eyes shining with pride.
I am overwhelmed by this home visit. Suddenly, I understand the work St Jude’s is doing: taking the poorest children with the brightest minds and educating them free of charge in order to fight poverty and create the leaders of tomorrow.
We leave the family with a customary St Jude’s care package, to assist with some basic living needs. It includes laundry soap, rice, flour, sugar, tea and a solar powered lamp. It is the least we can do. The best we can do though, is to sponsor Justina’s scholarship for her remaining school years. More than two thirds of Tanzania’s children are not in secondary school and 70 per cent of the population lives on less than AUD$2.50 a day.
On our second day, travel the 25km on the yellow bus out to the secondary school at Usa River, known as Smith campus.
Reminiscent of an American college campus, Smith is seriously impressive. It boasts a large library, computer labs, art room, well-kept sports fields and a farm, which supplies many of the vegetables for the 3,400 meals served daily across both of the schools and boarding.
We share lunch again in the massive dining hall, this time with 1,000 teenagers who devour mountains of ugali (a stiff maize flour porridge) and beans, along with slices of watermelon. The students all pitch in to help clean up, without fuss, and again I’m impressed by their attitude.
We meet the head girl at Smith and I ask her what she plans to do after graduating. “I’m going to be a business woman,” she declares. Her confidence is palpable and in her attitude I see the difference this school is making.
Importantly, our visitor experience is not confined to within the school gates. Frank takes us to visit a nearby government school where we meet another St Jude’s intern who is teaching English as part of his Community Service Year. The contrast is somewhat confronting: blackboards with peeling paint, dilapidated desks, 40 plus children in each class, and a library with tattered World Book encyclopedias from the 1970s, old exam papers and very few books. I’d recommend a government school visit as an absolute must for anyone visiting St Jude’s, to understand the real life situation for the majority of Tanzanian students. A Tanzanian adult averages only 5.8 years of schooling. We are also given the unique privilege of visiting a Maasai family and their boma (a group of mud huts that make up the property). With a number of St Jude’s students coming from Maasai families, the visitor team believes it’s important to show visitors their lifestyle. Enroute, we stop at a local market to purchase a goat as a gift and the animal travels with us in the school bus. The happy father of the family proudly introduces us to his three wives and multiple children, then invites us into one of his wives’ huts to see how they live, (polygamy is part of the traditional culture of the Masaai people and still widely practiced). The wives ceremonially dress us in traditional Maasai clothing and we can’t help but capture the moment with a little photo shoot. We timed our visit with St Jude’s Day, an annual celebration at the school, having heard from our daughter Kate, that it’s a pretty special event. The entire Smith Secondary Campus travels to Sisia Primary Campus to join in the festivities, beginning with a thanksgiving mass. There’s soulful stirring music while gifts for local orphanages from students and the wider school community are carried onto the stage, and it’s hard not to feel moved, witnessing this generosity in action.
Lunch is extra special today: there’s beef and potatoes on the menu, along with a bottle of soft drink for every student.
In the afternoon, the students perform in the highly contested talent show, vying for trophies. There’s dancing, drumming, singing, laughter and applause and it’s two hours of absolutely priceless entertainment which pays tribute to the history of the school and its extraordinary founder, Gemma Sisia, or Mama Gemma as they fondly call her.
St Jude’s was named after the patron saint of hopeless causes. Our visitor experience left us believing that this cause could not be any more hopeful.
P.S. On arriving home, we formalised our sponsorship arrangement and are looking forward to hearing about Justina’s progress as she continues her education.