After graduating from the College of St. Scholastica with an undergraduate and a master's degree, both in education, Sister Gaudensia Mwanyika returned to her home country of Tanzania to open a school aimed at helping marginalized children succeed.
The idea to do so came to her during her seven years of living in Duluth. It was here that she noticed the ways in which schools can care for students with disabilities and give them the support they need to succeed.
"I went to other schools just to watch what the special ed. teachers do," said Mwanyika, who taught for four years in Tanzania before attending school in Duluth. "I know for sure in Tanzania we don't have that kind of system, in school we don't have special ed."
So in 2015 she returned to Tanzania, a country in eastern Africa, and started making bricks for a school that would later be named after her alma mater: St. Scholastica School.
Mwanyika's private Catholic school, which opened in 2017, sits about 50 miles from the downtown of Dar es Salaam.
"I would never have done anything without the support from the people of Duluth," Mwanyika said. From 2007 to 2014 she lived at the St. Scholastica Monastery while studying at the college. She has recently returned to Duluth for a couple of months in order to raise money for a school bus.
Mwanyika's connection to Duluth stems from a twinning relationship dating back to 1994 between the benedictine sisters of the St. Scholastica Monastery and two convents in Tanzania, one of which is Mwanyika's community: St Gertrude Convent Imiliwaha in the foothills of the Livingstone Mountains.
The twinning relationship doesn't only create opportunities for benedictine sisters.
Sister Beverly Raway, the prioress of the St. Scholastica Monastery and retired educator of the nursing department, started coordinating trips with college students to Tanzania after her first visit in 2000.
Meanwhile, five sisters from Tanzania have studied at the college while staying at the monastery since the partnership began.
"It's been an enriching experience for our sisters, to have the sisters from Tanzania with us and we hope we'll have more coming to stay with us in the future," Raway said. "They have such a wonderful spirit. When I visit them over there, they are just amazing."
Before Raway stepped down from leading trips to Tanzania with students, she asked David Schuettler, a professor in the college's global, cultural and language studies department who had helped her lead a trip, if he would be interested in taking over. He agreed.
During the semester preceding the three-week volunteer trip, which typically sends 10 to 12 students in July, Schuettler said the group meets every other week in the evenings to learn about the culture, society and history of Tanzania as well as the differences between volunteer work and the acts of a "white savior."
"We are there to do what they want us to do and not impose our views on what they should be doing upon them," Schuettler said. "We talk about that a great deal. While we're in Tanzania we are reflecting with them, mostly every day in the evening."
He hopes the trips show students how they can have a role in giving themselves to society, whether that service is benefiting someone locally or internationally.
The first trip he led was in 2015, shortly after Mwanyika had purchased the property for the school. At the time, Schuettler said there was nothing but rows and rows of bricks drying in the sun. Later, using donations from people in Duluth, Mwanyika would hire workers to build the school using the bricks she made.
On his most recent trip with a college group in 2018, a building with classrooms was in use as well as a newer building for the library and offices. The group volunteered by painting or helping teachers with the children.
In Tanzania, Christianity is the predominant religion, followed by Islam, meaning many of the children at Mwanyika's Catholic school are Muslim, though because it's a Catholic school the children study, pray and dress accordingly.
"Because they agree to come to my school, they've had to agree to everything," Mwanyika said. "Most of them say they don't mind."
While the government requires that the school serve all students, struggling or not, Mwanyika still prioritizes students who come from poor families as well as students who get left behind in the public schools, where the student-to-teacher ratio is as high as 120-1.
"We have some who don't pay a single dollar because I want to help more families move to private school," Mwanyika said. "That's why I have to have some farms. I feed my children breakfast and lunch, but I grow all the crops myself."
On Saturdays, Mwanyika and adults who stay at the school travel to the 52-acre farm far away from the school's property to work and harvest rice, corn and a variety of tropical fruits for the school meals.
In its first year, just 14 kids attended the school, but that number is quickly growing as an additional grade is added every year. Currently, 110 students attend St. Scholastica School with grade levels ranging from classes for pre-kindergarten 3-year-old children to a class for second-graders. Next year, the school will add a class for third-graders.
As the number of students grows, so does the number of needed school bus seats. The school currently operates a small bus and a van for children who live at least five miles away. While the bus is fit to carry 16, as many as 40 children squeeze into it in order to commute to and from school.
"I can still run the school, but I won't be able to buy a school bus," said Mwanyika, as she relies on donations and tuition revenues, which go toward the teachers' salaries.
Mwanyika's friend from Duluth, Judy Sausen, a former special education teacher who now works with adults with disabilities, has traveled to Tanzania to volunteer at the school the past three summers. She encouraged Mwanyika to return to Duluth in order to raise money for the needed bus.
"Some of the private schools don't last too long because they run out of money. So that's why she's here, so she doesn't run out of money," Sausen said.
If you go
A fundraising dinner will be held at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 7 in the Somers Lounge at the College of St. Scholastica. The event will raise money for Sister Gaudensia Mwanyika to purchase a school bus for her school in Tanzania. Tickets will be available at the door and the suggested donation is $10.
Donations can also be sent to the St. Scholastica Monastery with "Tanzania School Bus" in the memo line or through duluthbenedictines.org.