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A dream reborn in a distant descendant

HONG KONG (SE): In the early 19th century, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, a successful business entrepreneur in Ireland, dreamed of setting up an educational system for poor children.

His dream materialised in the foundation of the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers’ Schools, which today can be found operating in almost every country in the world.

Over 150 years later, a distant descendant of Blessed Rice, Gemma Rice, was born at the other end of the world, in Guyra, a wealthy, fine Marino wool producing area in Australia.

She gradually became consumed with the same dream as her ancestor, a dream that grew stronger throughout her education with the Sisters of Charity and later during university days.

But unlike her stay-at-home ancestor, Rice responded by packing her bags for far off Tanzania, on the African continent, to share her expertise in mathematics, science and computer studies, as well as needlework, as a lay missionary in a school run by a group of sisters.

Rice fell in love with Tanzania, its Maasai people, their culture and way of life and, more importantly, one particular Maasai, Richard Sisia, whom she married.

Rice first hit the international media as a bit of a novelty. Qantas Airways in-flight magazine featured her as a young Australian woman marrying into a mysterious people with an even more mysterious culture and way of life.

But the only mysterious thing about Rice is her dedication to her adopted people and, in the spirit of her blessed ancestor, the poorest of the poor among them.

In 2002, she, with the help of her husband, family and friends back in Australia, as well as the Rotary Club, opened a school for the children of the poorest of the poor, who had no other opportunity of receiving an education.

She christened the school, St. Jude’s, after the patron saint of hopeless cases, not because the children were hopeless, but the situation into which they had been abandoned was hopeless.

St. Jude’s began in humble circumstances, with three students and one teacher, and a shady tree for a classroom.

Today it is a fine, modern structure, with an enrollment of 1,650 and boarding for over 1,000.

At a fund-raising evening held at the Gallerie Koo in Wyndham Street, Central, on September 30, Felix Mollel, from the St. Jude’s School Tourism Department, spoke to a group of benefactors and would-be supporters of the school at an evening organised by Hong Kong residents and long time benefactors, Peter Williams and his family.

Shivering slightly under the air conditioning in the traditional clothing of a Maasai herdsman and warrior, Mollel told the Sunday Examiner that he dressed that way so that he could formally thank, on behalf of the Maasai, those who have never been to his land, but hold deep concern for his people.

Somewhat non-plussed in his unfamiliar surroundings, he admitted that he was still wondering if the silver bird that had flown him halfway across the world that day had actually projected him onto another planet.

“Coming from the airport, I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said in bewilderment. “Even Dar es Salaam has nothing like this.”

He explained that St. Jude’s has been his personal salvation, as well as the salvation of hundreds of others who could not afford an education.

“The Maasai are a nomadic people,” he explained. “We have cattle and move with the grass. Even the lifestyle makes education difficult, as the cattle come before everything else.”

Even his own basic education was delayed, as he had to wait for his uncle to finish primary school and relieve him from his duties with the cattle.

“My father really wanted me to be educated,” he went on, “as he himself did not have the chance. 

But the big difficulty is that primary school is taught in Swahili and secondary in English. But the difficulty is where to learn enough English to qualify.”

Although his school principal was a dedicated and highly imaginative man, who made meticulous preparation with the students for the secondary entrance examination, only one from Mollel’s 150 classmates made the cut.

“Only then did we learn that the problem was lack of schools,” Mollel said. “So high school remained a dream.”

But he was determined to learn English. He would study every day after finishing his work as a bus driver, even applying for a job with a company running tours to nearby Kilimanjaro, as he would be able to practice with the foreign tourists.

Instead, he landed a job with St. Jude’s and learned English from the students on his bus—and he is still there, but now his fluent patter in his newly-learned language ushers the many foreign visitors around the school and neighbouring environment.

Mollel explained that the school is specifically designed to help poor children who suffer from the same disadvantages he experienced as a child in getting educated.

It is also an economic catalyst in the area, as all its food and other needs are sourced locally.

It employs over 400 local people on the staff, giving learning to those who otherwise would not have any and provides, as Mollel explains, “A chance for our people and nation to really develop.”

He described Tanzanian society as highly conservative and slow to move. “Since the death of our wonderful founding president, Julius Nyerere (mooted for sainthood) in 1999, government has declined,” he said.

“But lack of education leaves people politically unaware. At election time they automatically vote for Nyerere’s party, even for the man himself, as many do not know he is dead. Also Tanzania is a peaceful country and no one wants to disturb this”

He explained to the 50 or so people present that he believes, along with the founder of the school, that education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty that is a direct result of the political vacuum and lack of social structures, as he appealed to them to pledge support for one or more students.

St. Jude’s is supported entirely on donations and although like any such enterprise, it has its big money benefactors, individuals sponsoring a student are its backbone.


Its continued existence is testimony to the timelessness and universality of the dream of its initial inspiration, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice.