Zanzibar school founder speaks in Almonte

by Brent Eades

A remarkable young man told his inspirational story to a full house at St. Paul’s earlier this month.

Shafii Mwita Haji, better known by his nickname ‘Gasica’, is the founder and headmaster of the Zanzibar Learning 4 Life Foundation, a school that teaches students English and prepares them for various careers, and also provides housing for students who are orphans or homeless.

He was here as the guest of local resident and artist Cathy Blake, who first met Gasica when she was an English teacher working with CUSO in Tanzania several years ago.

Gasica, 27,  overcame great odds to reach this point.

At age 14 he failed the all-important ‘Primary School Leaving Exam’, meaning he was ineligible to enroll in a government-funded secondary school. His only alternative was one of the many sub-standard schools open to kids who don’t pass the exam.

He was certainly not alone in failing it; this Human Rights Watch article says that “more than 400,000 children, 49.4 percent, failed the exam in 2013. The year before, a staggering 69.3 percent failed. Girls are disproportionately affected, with lower percentages passing the exam.”

Young people excluded from the public schooling system are in turn usually excluded from decent employment. Human Rights Watch says that “children who failed the exam… were at greater risk of becoming involved in hazardous child labor in small-scale gold mines.”

Frustrated with the poor education he was receiving, Gasica quit, which led to a falling-out with his family and him living on the streets.

Then fate intervened. A stranger took a liking to Gasica and offered to teach him English for an hour a day. After six months he was starting to master the language, and began offering other young people English lessons, sometimes in exchange for meals at their homes.

In time he had 150 students, and the community helped him find rudimentary classroom space. By now Gasica was 17. He took two jobs at a hotel and began saving and building. He worked during the day and taught at night with a rechargeable flashlight and a broken blackboard.

He also re-wrote his exams and passed. His story was told in local media, which led to a reconciliation with his family. His mother owned the shell of a building that was suitable for a school, and she turned it over to him. He began building his school.

The Rotary Club became a supporter and helped raise the funds needed to finish the school and double its size. It includes a computer lab, free wifi, and various clubs.

In 2015 a Canadian family spent time with Gasica to help establish a bike shop with bikes they had collected in Calgary. This led to a vocational training program where students take a 6-month apprenticeship learning to run a bike business. Graduates then receive scholarships for further studies, or micro-loans to help them set up their own business.

Profits from the bike shop also help support the school, covering the power and water bills, teacher salaries, and rent for the bike shop. They also allowed the school to buy land and establish a chicken farm, which has become a second vocational program and business. Students learn to raise chickens and grow vegetables, whose sale supports programs at the school.

It was a very impressive presentation, by a very inspiring young man.

An early classroom in a nursery school
Gasica with two physically disabled students on trikes they used for mobility.
Gasica at his mother’s unfinished house in 2011, which eventually became the school.
Cathy Blake, at right, at the school with some of the eleven bikes she raised money for in Canada, so his teachers could have free transportation. They all taught as volunteers in those days.