Saturday, 25 September 2021

Going to school is an African Dream

SENDING children to school is something that we take for granted in this country, but in some parts of the

SENDING children to school is something that we take for granted in this country, but in some parts of the world it is still a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

It was this observation that prompted former Henley mayor Janine FitzGerald (formerly Voss) to set up a charity to build a secondary school while she was on a visit to Tanzania.

The school, which started life as five students under a tree, now provides education for 200 young people from the Maasai community. The work of the charity, Serian UK, is to be celebrated with an exhibition of photographs and poetry, African Dream, which opens at the Old Fire Station gallery on Wednesday, December 4.

Mrs FitzGerald said: “I was doing an anthropology degree and was out there on a cultural visit when I came across a young lady, an anthropologist from Oxford, who had got very involved with the Maasai. She had seen that there were so many young people who were denied access to secondary school.

“All secondary schools in Tanzania are fee-paying. We are not talking about fees along the lines of independent schools in this country — fees would be about £20 a month for a boarder. But if you are living at subsistence level you don’t have any leftover cash to send any of your children to school. Lots of young people are being left out of the education system.”

Mrs FitzGerald set up Serian UK in 2004 as a registered UK charity with a British bank account, and over the years Noonkodin School, about four hours drive from Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania, has grown.

The area, on the edge of the Serengeti, is sparsely populated as the indiginous Maasai people are mainly nomadic farmers who move around with their cattle to find grazing land. There are no roads and no electricity, so most children have to board — walking more than six kilometres to school over terrain inhabited by wild animals is a dangerous occupation.

In September this year Henley residents and sponsors John and Jane Case visitied the school.

In a written report they said: “When we arrived at the school our breath was taken away by the welcome — the whole school singing and laughing followed by the traiditional Maasai dancing.

“Building the school has not been an easy task. Every brick was made by hand from local clay and baked in wood-fired kilns. Water has to be transported up the mountain by truck or carried on the backs of donkeys from a reservoir six kilometres away. Everyday challenges of climate, harsh terrain, poverty and illness continue.”

Despite the challenges, Mrs FitzGerald said the school is a very happy place to be.

She said: “Their lives are rich with other things that we have lost — family connections, sharing, respect for elders, and the way they maintain their culture is very humbling from a Western point of view. They look after each other. It’s really lovely.”

The exhibition will feature images from international photographer Bob Webzell, co-founder of the charity, as well as poetry from Zimbabwean writer Wayne Visser.

African Dream runs at the Old Fire Station gallery from Wednesday to Monday, December 4 to 9, open daily from 11am to 4pm, with late closing on the Friday at 9pm. Photographer Bob Webzell will be in attendance from Thursday to Saturday. Maasai crafts will also be on display, as well as artwork from children at St Mary’s School. All proceeds will go to the charity. For more details go to www.serianuk.org.uk

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