Jamaican-Canadian builds school in Malawi
September 23, 2017
In her acceptance speech after being honoured in December 2015 with the William Hubbard Memorial Award, Kamala-Jean Gopie said, ‘I shall not pass this way again. Any good thing I can do or any kindness that I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again’.
While vacationing in South Africa with her sister-in-law three months later, the former Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) president was bowled over by a young Malawian working in Capetown to support himself and family back home.
Gopie won the trip for two at the Planet Africa Awards live auction three years ago.
She started a conversation with Chimwemwe (Happy) Mussa while sitting on a bench waiting for her sister-in-law who was making purchases at an outdoor craft market.
“He told me where he was from and that his father died and he was working to support his mother, grandmother and six siblings back home,” Gopie recounted. “He also said he wanted to be a teacher, but he didn’t’ do well in his Grade 12 exams. The moment I heard that, I thought he should be given another opportunity.”
Before parting, she gave the then 22-year-old US$10 and her card.
“He thanked me profusely and I promised I would see if there is anything I could do to help,” said Gopie who was one of the first immigrant minority women to run for public office in the province in 1981.
Sensing an opportunity to improve his lot in life and help his family, Mussa returned to Malawi and enrolled in a private boarding school in Blantyre which is about 70 miles from his village in Malosa.
Gopie confirmed he returned to school after her cousin, Dr. Seymour Williams who was living in Pretoria at the time and assigned to the Centre for Diseases Control, checked with colleagues in Malawi to verify that Mussa was telling the truth.
After sending a picture to Gopie with his family, she noticed he was the only one wearing shoes. She sent money for him to buy some footwear and clothes, but he used the funds to purchase two bags of maize (the country’s staple grain) and a bag of fertilizer for his grandmother.
Last June, Gopie flew out to Malawi to visit Mussa and his family.
“He had brought me so much joy from the time I met him,” she said. “He was a risk-taker because he knew no one in Capetown when he went there to work. He had also never been to Blantyre before attending school there. From time to time, he would email me to say ‘thank you’ and ask God’s blessings for me. So I had to go to Malawi.”
Before leaving the landlocked country in southeastern Africa, she promised Mussa that she would help him get through the University of Malawi if he passed his Grade 12 exam last July.
He’s still waiting for the results.
Back home, Gopie met with People Bridge Foundation head Diana Burke to discuss the establishment of a small school in Malosa.
Consultant and philanthropist Betty Steinhauer created the foundation in 1997 to reduce poverty and promote health care in developing and under-developed countries.
Six years ago, she officially handed over the foundation to Canada’s Jamaican community.
“When I asked Happy what it would take for a school to be built, he said he would have to check with the village chief,” said Gopie who has donated hundreds of dollars of scholarships to Canadian students pursuing post-secondary education. “Three days later, he got back to me saying the chief had approved the idea.”
Mussa’s family donated a hectare of land and, in five weeks, the school was built at a cost of Can$4,500.
Gopie, who provided the majority of the funds while a few of her friends chipped in with financial contributions, attended the school’s opening ceremony on September 18.
“Originally, I thought we were going to accommodate about 40 students, but the need is so great that 70 registered in two days,” said the Black Business & Professional Association founding director who took two suitcases filled with school supplies, toys and games.
The children under the age of 12 will be taught in their own language.
An Order of Ontario and University of the West Indies Toronto gala vice-chancellor award recipient, Gopie sat on the Provincial Task Force on Race Relations and Policing and was an Ontario Human Rights Commission part-time commissioner, a member of the Ontario Housing Corporation, the province’s Advisory Committee on Multiculturalism & Citizenship and the federal Immigration & Refugee Board.
She was also the JCA’s first female president, a United Way Toronto vice-chair and chair of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the local publication committee that produced a coffee table book – When the Ackee Meets the Saltfish – that was launched five years ago to mark Jamaica’s 50th independence anniversary.