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We built a school in Africa

01 July 2014

Annabelle Newsletter

Annabelle Chauncy (above) decided when she was 21 she was going to build a school in Uganda… actually, three schools.

Seven years on, School for Life co-founder Annabelle, and an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influnece awardee, has already partially realised her ambitious dream to build three schools in Uganda. She sees absolutely no reason why her plan won’t be fully realised - in time. In fact, Annabelle is now raising funds to purchase the 30 acres she needs for School for Life’s secondary boarding school as well as for building teachers’ accommodation.

“I have a partner in all of this. Dave [David Everett], who I met in Kenya. We’re like chalk and cheese, but not one part of me believes that I could have done this without him,” Annabelle explains of her School for Life co-founder.

Annabelle and Dave met having both decided to travel to Africa with World Youth International in 2007.

Dave was a development studies student and Annabelle, who had finished the Arts part of her Arts Law degree, was in crises over career and life plans.

“My parents were mortified I chose Africa. There were other places you could choose to go, including Nepal, and I think they’d wanted me to choose somewhere a bit more secure, a bit closer to home.

“Africa’s portrayed in the media fairly pejoratively: security, HIV Aids, health risks, civil unrest and violence… I understand why they were worried,” says Annabelle, who then goes on to explain she was only in Kenya for six weeks when the country erupted into civil violence.

“The Australian Government said we had to get out. It was pretty scary but I actually believe we weren’t in danger. They weren’t interested in Westerners. It was a fight between tribes over the elections; people expressing their frustration at an absolute lack of democratic process.

“Mum and Dad were worried. In Africa what happens in these situations is that everyone runs to the towns and buys all the mobile phone credit but when you don’t speak the language you can’t really work out what is going on. We had our phones and we could keep in contact with home but as for understanding what was happening locally that was harder. Dad was going to get a helicopter to come and get me, which was pretty wild,” says Annabelle, with a slight laugh.

In the end she left Kenya for neighbouring Uganda, feeling guilty she could get out while others had to stay. Once in Uganda she found work and remained for a few months, coming home via the School of St Jude in Tanzania.

That was where things changed completely.

Founded in 2002 by Gemma Rice, a young Australian woman from rural Armidale in NSW, the School of St Jude provides high quality education to more than 1500 pupils. It is a charity-funded school.

“I remember thinking,” says Annabelle, “if she [Gemma Rice] can do it then I can. I sat at the airport with a pen and dirty notebook scribbling down everything I’d learned and seen and formed a plan.”

Back in Australia Annabelle reconnected with Dave to discover he also wanted to build a school. He had his own “filthy” notebook of ideas and plans, which when they compared notes made perfect sense to combine. They also began to understand that what each of them had as individuals in the way of skills, knowledge, and experience, was going to be of enormous benefit to achieving a successful outcome.

Passionate about her plan, Annabelle was on the verge of quitting the law degree to get started, much to her parents’ chagrin, when she was made very aware, having approached potential donors, that “a 21-year-old with a big idea was not enough”. She went back to university and finished her degree, landing in a job as an EA in a corporate advisory firm at the end.

“Doing the degree had a purpose now. I chose subjects such as international law, conflict and war law, human rights,” says Annabelle, who also admits, the degree and the corporate experience when she finished and began working have been “so useful”, especially when it came to networks and understanding what’s needed to set up and administer an organisation successfully.

Annabelle also confesses she was very naïve about what it would take to realise the project - both here and in Uganda - and that there have been (and still are) many opportunities for her and School for Life to “fall flat on its face”. However, as time goes on and the work progresses, the space to breathe a little easier opens up.

Begun and initially dependent on donors and fund raising, the organisation is aiming for self-sustainment.

The model is based on building local capacity to run and maintain the school complex (two primary schools feed into the secondary boarding school) and associated facilities. Sitting on 30 acres of land, the secondary school will grow coffee and chilli in order to generate revenue and create sustainability to maintain operations if there’s a donor or fundraising crises. School for Life also runs sewing classes and recently hosted seven Rotarians to teach the members of the local community how to use the machines, sewing techniques, pattern making, etc. The vocational training again builds revenue streams and community capacity.

The boarding aspect of the secondary school is important for another reason. Maintaining young girls in education is a huge part of what School for Life strives to do. Young girls are the first to be removed from school for dowry or to work, usually at around 14 years old. There are seven years of primary school and six of secondary in the Ugandan education system and the school’s Primary 3 class is almost 100 per cent girls.

The dominance, as Annabelle points out, is short lived: “Uganda’s a massive boys’ world. When I first went across I could not get meetings with the high end of government. These were guys who believed I had no place in business. I’d sit on the doorstep for two weeks until they saw me.”

The situation was not the same for Annabelle’s co-founder, Dave.

The other major challenges they both face are “inefficiency and corruption”, both of which are so engrained in the system they are the system. Navigating the system is a skill, and Annabelle says School for Life’s experience has been very lucky.

“Corruption is totally entrenched. It facilitates things happening and not to play the game is difficult when it could mean starting a project months earlier,” explains Annabelle, who still believes no amount of facilitation is worth getting entrenched in a system that is corrupt.

“We work hard keeping and developing our relationships with the local government and community and this has made our journey much easier. They [the community and local officials] get it. They see the benefits and the relief the school brings. They’re involved and they see their children and the community prosper.

“It’s important,” Annabelle continues, “that they know they own School for Life and bowing to corruption would only undermine their own position.”

According to Annabelle, education shapes every part of the person you become, and giving back to the community is one of the most important acts in which a person can indulge.

“Sometimes, I wake up and think about the responsibilities and what starting this project means. You can’t just turn around and go I’ve had enough now, and leave. There aren’t any real sign posts or guide books for what we’re doing. It’s just a matter of always moving forward.”

In the end, she believes, “passion for what you do really matters. A pay cheque at the end of the day doesn’t always equal success and it certainly doesn’t equal fulfilment. Doing your best and being truthful and honest with yourself about what you want are the important things.”

(The first primary school, built in 2010, has 180 children enrolled and 10 teachers on board and accepts about 40 new pupils a year. Annabelle has also formed into a partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, taking across Jill Maginnity, The International Program manager, who works in developing countries delivering learning activities to NGOs in advocacy, disability rights and inclusion.)  

School For Life is running an event August 28 with top Women of Influence speakers on the power of education for women and girls globally.

Uganda School1



  • Qinnie Wang

    Qinnie Wang 5 years ago

    Annabelle is an inspiration, and I think naiveness is a good thing as it gives us the courage to get things started without any relevant experience or knowledge. When I started Oz Fair Trade, I didn't know how to build a website let alone setting up and running a charity. But my naiveness and passion made things happen. Now I still don't have everything figured out, but I'm on the right track. Well done Annabelle!