The School that Hope Built by Madeleine Kelly

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

A book such as this is a welcome antidote to the horrors of the daily news cycle. It is an inspirational account of how a group of dedicated young people, recognising the value of education, devoted their skills and energies to establishing and supporting the school of St Jude’s in Tanzania.

In 2002, Gemma, only 22 at the time, founded St Jude’s. It began with just three pupils but, twenty years later, there are 1,800 being educated each year, ranging through primary and secondary and then, in some cases,  leaving to acquire further qualifications at university, often internationally.

When still a school girl, Gemma realised the attraction of doing something worthwhile in the education field in Africa. Then when she appeared on a segment of Australian Story, Madeleine the book’s author, decided that she too would journey to Tanzania and contribute her efforts to the extraordinary project.

In her straightforward manner, Madeleine has given a detailed background to the brief history of St Jude’s and her role while she lived there. She recounts the events that shook the school, like the freezing of funds by the Taxation Department. We realise that there is little time to relax. If not devoting energies to the daily challenges of running the school itself, there are the demanding trips abroad to increase support and give progress reports.

Gemma and her enthusiastic team devised clear and fair-minded ideals to govern who would benefit from the free education opportunity offered. The main basis was the assessment of  aspiring students’ degree of poverty. There was huge competition for this. Hundreds applied for a few dozen places. Some parents resorted to contrived circumstances to dishonestly win a position they knew benefited the child and often the family. One of the saddest cases was of a man of 25 who desperately sought a place in the year 5 primary class. He had to be turned away.

This sense of social justice is the driving force behind the work at the school. So appealing is the scheme that some graduate pupils remain and become staff in a meaningful role. Another concept St Jude’s follows is that those fortunate enough to receive their much prized education should contribute to their community. To this end, they spend a year working and helping the people in nearby villages, rather like a gap year.

During Covid, the poor suffered most, as tourists vanished and companies had to downsize. St Jude’s staff and older children produced packs which they distributed to the grateful needy. That totalled 3,000.

The success of the school, which grew from very humble very basic beginnings, is largely due to Gemma, her husband Richard ( his father gifted a plot of land which was the foundation for the first school building), and the army of volunteers and supporters. The latter, now from Australia and other countries, generously donates the money which makes it all possible.

Madeleine was swept along by the enthusiasm and philosophy of people involved, staff and of course, the children. The delightful cover of the book shows the joy and delight of some of the happy pupils proudly dressed in their uniforms.

The writing is an honest testament to the extraordinary achievement of Gemma and her fellow workers, 98% of whom are now local Tanzanians.

To raise the spirits and inspire the younger reader, The School That Hope Built is the perfect suggestion, describing the possibility of a means to escape the stranglehold of poverty….an education.

The School that Hope Built


by Madeleine Kelly

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176087 832 0

$34.99; 319pp

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