#RightsMedia story: St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes

8-year-old Kelvin Mushi walks down a long, bumpy road to reach his bus stop along the highway.

8-year-old Kelvin Mushi walks down a long, bumpy road to reach his bus stop along the highway.

ARUSHA, Tanzania — Every Monday morning as the sun rises, 8-year-old Kelvin Mushi wakes up and puts on his neatly-pressed powder blue dress shirt along with his navy blue sweater and pants, the iconic uniform at The School of St Jude, Arusha’s most sought-after educational institution.

The Tanzanian boy slings on his backpack and walks down a long, bumpy dirt road from his small home in Mianzini to the highway, where he’s picked up by one of St Jude’s colourful buses, criss-crossing the city, picking up students from all over Arusha and its environs.

Ask around town and everyone says St Jude’s is the best school of its kind in Africa, due to its charity-funded status and high-quality education. People all over Tanzania have heard a bit about the mzungu (white person) from Australia who opened this school for poor, gifted children in Arusha. Almost as if it was a folk tale.

The School of St Jude was founded in 2002 by Gemma Sisia, an Australian who has dedicated her life to Tanzanian kids, including four of her own. It’s named after the patron saint of hopeless causes, something Sisia laughs about and relates to her early years teaching in Africa when she would pray to St Jude for help and it would arrive.

“I started off by raising money to help girls go to school in Uganda,” she says. “Then I met my future husband in Tanzania. His father asked me to help send kids to school here in Arusha. I said yes!”

Families come from all over the region to try and get their kids into St Jude’s every year. The school has grown dramatically in 10 years, starting with only three students and now educating over 1,600 in the primary and secondary levels. A rigorous process to choose future students just ended with a team of school employees meeting families and interviewing relatives and neighbours. This will determine if a potential student meets their requirements.

Kelvin and sister Queen in MianziniKelvin showed an aptitude for learning that his older brother and sister admire. Due to his family’s poverty level his mother couldn’t afford send him to a decent school, so she gave St Jude’s a try and submitted him to the testing.

“I wanted to give Kelvin the best education possible, but I only sell bananas at the market,” Kelvin’s mom says through an interpreter.

As a requirement to be accepted into St Jude’s, students must spend at least one year at a government-run primary school. Unfortunately in Tanzania, the government education system is failing students like Kelvin, according to Sisia.

“It’s very common for government school teachers not to be payed for 3 to 4 months at a time,” she says. They don’t give them teaching resources like text books, blackboards, or chalk. It’d be very hard to find one with a library or a computer.”

Kelvin is now eight months into his first year at St Jude’s, where he’s showing promise, but the school has yet to find a sponsor to help him continue his studies for the long term.

Only 86 per cent of St Jude students are sponsored at the moment, while 35 out of the school’s 1,600-plus students are sponsored by Canadians.

“My favourite class is science,” Kelvin says. “I want to become a doctor.” This makes his mother smile.

Kelvin with his mom and older sister Queen outside their home in Mianzini (Arusha).

Kelvin with his mom and older sister Queen outside their home in Mianzini (Arusha).

The 2012 Form Four (equivalent to grade eleven in North America) national examinations, which determines who will be accepted into senior high school in Tanzania, saw an unprecedented failure rate with kids doing so poorly it caused a national scandal.

“60 per cent of the country applicants failed,” Sisia says. “I think it’s a human rights violation what happens in the government system.”

Due to Sisia’s hard work and the determination of St Jude’s teachers and staff, the school’s students ranked number one in the Form Four national examinations in Northern Tanzania. With statistics like this, Kelvin’s chance of succeeding in primary and secondary school is much more likely. Sisia promises by 2015 (the school’s first high school graduating class) she will pay tuition for St Jude students to attend a Tanzanian college or university, if they choose to carry on with their education.

A future in medicine is definitely on the table if Kelvin works hard and realizes he’s not a hopeless cause, but the future of this bright country.

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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