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Gemma Sisia: “I wanted to build a free private school in Africa”

Gemma Sisia and Dorice Livingston

Education for life: School of St Jude founder Gemma Sisia and graduate Dorice Livingstone in Brisbane recently. Photo: Emilie Ng

TANZANIAN children line up in the thousands for a rigorous test to get them inside the School of St Jude.

The school’s founder, Armidale-born Gemma Sisia, rounds up the number of children who took the test last year to 7000.

Last November, shortly after Gemma turned 44, the School of St Jude said goodbye to their first graduating Year 12 class.

Dorice Livingstone was in that group.

She moved into the school from a government school where chances of a teacher showing up were slim and students were crammed into one class. 

“We had very small classes, like only five in one class, and for me, I was from the public school for primary education, with 100 in a class,” Dorice said. 

Since graduating last year, Dorice has been volunteering at a government school with hopes of becoming a gynaecologist, a desperately needed profession in her country.

“It’s just that in Tanzania we have less than 100 gynaecologists for 20 million women so you can see how many are suffering,” she said. 

Dorice graduation

Success: Dorice Livingstone graduates from the School of St Jude.

“There are a lot of women complications; they are dying in the hospitals, their babies are dying in the hospitals, because there are not enough to attend them.”

Dorice’s dream is closer to reality because of two Australian families who pitched in to sponsor her schooling.

In fact, out of the school’s US$5 million budget, 94 per cent of the funding comes from Australia through sponsors, like the Collins family from Brisbane, but also Catholic clergy, like Gemma’s “spiritual grandfather” Bishop Kevin Manning, who is a former Bishop of Armidale and Bishop of Parramatta.

Ingrid and Terry Collins have given $60 a month for seven years so their sponsor child at the School of St Jude’s will have a chance to graduate.

The Brisbane couple, whose two daughters graduated from St Rita’s College, Clayfield, watched Gemma on ABC TV’s Australian Story with amazement.

When their younger daughter needed to find a hero for an assignment, Gemma was a clear contender.

The family got in touch with her and eventually met her at a fundraising event in Cleveland several years ago, which convinced them to sponsor a female student.

“We wanted to give a young girl a chance in life,” Mrs Collins said.

“But we’re receiving far more than we’re giving.”

Gemma said her country of origin kept the school alive.

“Australia is really what kept the school growing and sustaining, and so I thought it would be nice to bring one of our graduates to Australia,” she said.

Dorice was the first graduate from the School of St Jude’s to stand on Australian soil with Gemma on a tour that ended last week.

Originally from Armidale, Gemma left for Africa when she was 22 with “pie-in-the-sky ideas” to be a missionary or a nun.

She set off working at a convent school in Uganda for three years, but was confronted by the stark reality that education was too expensive for most African families.

From an early age, Gemma’s devout Catholic farming dad, Basil Rice, put education on a pedestal above other life achievement.

Her parents even put six boys and one girl through private schools around New South Wales.

“Dad used to say no matter what happens in life, no one can take your education away,” Gemma said.

Her parents’ generosity spoke loudly to Gemma, especially in Africa.

“I thought I’d love to give a school to the kids in East Africa but a free private school so their parents didn’t have to go through what my parents did,” she said.

She started to realise her wild ambitions when she went on a Serengeti Plains safari tour on her first Easter holiday.

Richard Sisia was her tour guide.

“And stupidly, I suppose, I fell in love with him,” Gemma said.

“If someone had told me I’d fall in love with Richard, I would have told them to go back to the pub.”

Gemma’s decision to marry a Tanzanian man was rough news for her Aussie family, but had its perks, including a father-in-law from the Maasai tribe who convinced her the children in their country were the poorest in Africa.

“He was the village chairman and was the one who gave me my first two acres of land on which I started the school,” she said.

Now the school gives free education to 2000 Tanzanians, and about 60 per cent of them are young girls.

While some say what’s happened in her life to start the School of St Jude are coincidences, Gemma would rather give credit to a more saintly figure.

“I don’t believe they’re coincidences and that’s why I called it the School of St Jude, the patron of lost causes,” she said.

“Trying to start a school with $10 is a pretty lost cause or hopeless or impossible.  

“But St Jude has been my mate since school so I thought if anyone is going to help me get this school it’s going to be him.”

The country’s smartest but poorest children can attend the school, but only after qualifying through a rigorous academic and poverty test.

This year the school offered the scholarship program to 67 students out of 7000 who took the qualifying test.

Gemma’s recent plea to St Jude is for sponsors to fund tertiary education for her first graduating class.

“And I’ve often said to him if I’m going to go under or can’t finance the tertiary I’m going to change the name of the school,” Gemma said.

“So far it’s going okay.”

For more information about the school or how to sponsor, visit www.schoolofstjude.org.

By Emilie Ng

Written by: Emilie Ng
Catholic Church Insurance

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