You can listen to the program as Gemma talks with Richard Fidler by going to the ABC website and downloading the audio file.
Gemma Sisia is a woman with an outrageous amount of energy. With $10 in her bank account, the former Guyra farm girl set up a school in Tanzania for poor but bright African children. Gemma found sponsors and supporters in Australia, and literally helped build the school - brick by brick - on an idyllic piece of land at the foot of Mount Meru in Tanzania. She named the school 'St Jude's' after the patron saint of lost causes - but in fact the school is a huge success, bringing a decent modern education to 890 kids who would otherwise be doing manual labour. She's written about her amazing experiences in her book called, simply, St Jude's.
Gemma's childhood, growing up on the farm with seven brothers, equipped her well for the daily challenges she faces in Africa. "I was expected to do everything," she recalls, "from mustering sheep to land-marking to even crutching sheep. Mum and Dad brought all of us up to never give up; anything's do-able - you can start anything if you really put your mind to it, but nothing will succeed without hard work...
"Before I went to Africa originally I did this two week 'how to integrate into a third world country' course. Absolute waste of time! If anyone wants to work in Africa, they should go to TAFE and do a mechanics course, a plumbing course... Thank God I was brought up on a far! All the days I was with Dad helping with the tractor, laying down the polythene pipe pumping water... All this stuff I learned has really come in handy!"
At St Jude's, Gemma's busy day starts at 7.30am. "I go through all my emails, then the school buses start coming in. We have 18, with all the kids and teachers...
"School starts at 8.30. Then I have a spike near my desk - if anyone needs any materials, painters/electricians, hey put it on my spike. I can't talk to anyone! If they want something in town they stick it on the spike, then once or twice a week I take my spike into town... Then [I] come back... [have] meetings with teachers... I meet once a week with the head of the Masai guard and head cook, cleaner, gardener. Every three minutes probably [I wear] a different hat."
Gemma has a small army of people helping her, however. "We've got a melting pot of nationalities, religions, money backgrounds, beliefs, senses of humour. In my office alone, my sponsorship co-ordinator is German, the accountant is French... [we have an] Irish visitor co-ordinator because everyone gets along with the Irish!"
Gemma's thrilled with the school's success. "Every year [we get] 200 new kids... With that, more bus drivers, more cooks and cleaners, 12 or 13 more teachers. It sounds very romantic and really exciting but actually, it is so hard! It is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. The last five years have taken more out of me than my whole life put together, but I wouldn't do anything else. I wouldn't be able to find anything as challenging or rewarding and when you do get the wonderful academic results that we've been getting, and the knowledge that these kids are definitely going to lead Tanzania in the future - well then, it makes it all worth it."
This fantastic education project in one of the poorest countries is very well run. Gemma has a close eye on every detail, and she has a large vision for the future. Don't hold back from giving your support.
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