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Can You Change the World?

In a busy school year, we can all occasionally be guilty of focussing on what is immediately in front of us, whether that is revising for a major test, rehearsing for a big production or even daydreaming about the next holiday.  But from time to time something snaps us out of this short-term attitude to remind us exactly why we should always be striving to achieve more and to make us think about the potential each of us has to make a real impact in the world and the lives of others. Mother Theresa is quoted as saying: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

This summer, my family and I had lunch with a headmaster, Daniel, and his family from Tanzania.  My husband had first met Daniel over a decade ago, when Daniel was a deputy head who was hoping to start a school in the district of Arusha in northern Tanzania near the Kenyan border.  Daniel was passionate about making this a school with a difference; he wanted it to focus on the education of girls.  As in many parts of the world, education for girls is far from the norm here and, as one of the poorest parts of the world, education rates overall are low.  Almost 70 percent of children aged 14-17 are not enrolled in secondary education and a mere 3.2 percent are enrolled for the final two years of schooling.  For girls the situation is bleak with only about 5 percent of girls enrolled for secondary education at all.  According to Africa School Assistance Project (ASAP), ‘girls who receive a secondary education will marry later, have higher family incomes, tolerate less domestic violence, and give their children better care, thereby reducing infant mortality rates.’

Born into a family with nine daughters, Daniel explained that girls are seen as transient family members who will marry and soon become part of another family and, for this reason amongst others, investing in girls’ education is not prioritised.  Daniel instinctively felt this was wrong and, when he had his own three daughters, he set out to start a school.  He had nothing but a patch of land when an expedition leader from the UK, and a group of school pupils from southeast England, turned up in 2008 to start building the school.  The school opened with six pupils and was called The Voice Secondary School – its name represents the fact that it gives all students, whatever their background, religion or gender, a ‘voice’ with which to make an equal contribution to their community.  Once it was up and running, Daniel extended the school’s remit, not just to promote the education of girls but also to provide a safe school for children who are albinos. Even today, albinos, who are unable to produce skin or hair pigment and therefore standout against the majority black population, are viewed by some as having supernatural powers and they live in fear of their lives.

I had a fascinating conversation with Daniel about the history of education in England explaining that, although it isn’t apparent today, the disparity between the educational opportunities for boys and girls existed in this country over a long period of time.  Showing Daniel around St John’s, one of the things that struck him was the historical timeline on the hoarding around the swimming pool site.  St John’s was founded with just eight pupils for the purpose of educating the sons of poor clergy and Daniel saw the growth of our school, the buildings that have gone up over time and the fact that today we have over 760 pupils. He turned to his wife and said: “This is what it is about, this is what I have to hope I have started – something that will grow and last longer than me.”

What an outstanding example of the impact that one person can make.  As Mother Theresa described, Daniel has made ripples.  He has already made a difference for some girls and young people with albinism and will go on doing so.  But who knows what ripples those young people in turn will then go on make?  He may not have changed the world, but in his part of Tanzania, he has brought about a change. It was a timely reminder of the potential within us all if we show resilience, passion and have the confidence to stand up for our convictions.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.   Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey