Tanzania Testing Day: A Child’s Chance to Escape Poverty and Danger

A passing grade is a sacred passport that allows passage into Boystown and Girlstown communities, where buildings rise from parched land like Mount Kilimanjaro.

Sister of Mary Maureen Antido, who graduated from Girlstown in the Philippines, greets a small child on a recruiting trip.
Sister of Mary Maureen Antido, who graduated from Girlstown in the Philippines, greets a small child on a recruiting trip. (photo: The Sisters of Mary)

Once a year in Tanzania, on its world-forgotten islands, unvisited mountainsides, and in jungles and brush with man-eating animals, the Sisters of Mary enter some of the most dangerous villages in Africa to recruit their incoming class.

This is testing day for Tanzania’s poor. When a white-habited nun escorts a child to a wobbly bench or old wooden chair, each youngster sees the sheet of paper that could change everything. The remainder of their lives hinges on how they will answer the multiple-choice questions before them, they’ve been told.

Because the nuns from the Sisters of Mary of Banneux, who number 383 sisters worldwide, know the weight and strain that hangs in the air, they make a point to speak tenderly to the young test-takers, a mix of pre-teens and 13- and 14-year-olds. It often happens that just as the students reach for their pencils, they’ll be distracted by the rumblings of their stomachs or clouds of mosquitoes. It’s a fraught moment: A single confusing question will often begin a twisting kaleidoscope of doubt. I am failing; I will not make it.

But if a child later hears his or her name called, they will often say it seemed God — not a nun from the Sisters of Mary — called and plucked them from a tomb in the manner of Jesus summoning Lazarus. 

A passing grade is a sacred passport that allows passage into Tanzania’s Boystown and Girlstown communities, where buildings rise from parched land like Mount Kilimanjaro. For five years in these boarding schools, faithful women educate, catechize, nourish, counsel, jog with, play sports with, and pray with the students. It is a divine paradox in these communities outside of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma, where the sisters die to themselves so that children can live.

For more than a half-century, the Sisters of Mary have traveled by boat, motorcycle, bus and foot to rescue children submerged in poverty. Shoulder to shoulder, they’ve climbed thousands of paths — always two-by-two — that split the seams of mountains bathed in traffickers, gang members, murderers and drug-runners — to get to the oppressed villages that house some of the most vulnerable boys and girls in the world. Sisters have been kidnapped, held up at gunpoint, accosted, and verbally threatened and abused on the way to the hovels, mud huts and lean-tos. They say God is with them on these blood trails, though, so they return each year, where children —  their future students — have come to regard them as saving guardian angels.

Each evening throughout the world, at 7 p.m. in these Boystowns and Girlstowns, more than 20,000 of the rescued children pray the Rosary together in a chorus that reverberates like thousands of bees, a constant buzzing of invocation. Thereafter, they often adore the Blessed Sacrament, where they sometimes stretch out the tips of their fingers to the base of a monstrance — like bands of hemorrhaging women — and beg Jesus to release them from the memories of their pasts. These children attend frequent weekday Masses, heal before the monstrance at adoration, regularly confess their sins, and are catechized by the sisters, who for decades have raised these teenagers to evangelize and convert lost college-aged souls. 

I knew little about the Sisters of Mary’s half-century of saving work with the poor until writing Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius, 2021). “Father Al” founded the religious community after encountering hundreds of orphans laying on streets like leftover war landmines in the wake of the Korean War. He understood poor Korean women — not men —  were best suited to mother back to life the neglected and humiliated children of the war-torn nation.

The humble American priest could not have known on Aug. 15, 1964 — the day he founded the religious community on Korea’s mountainous southern peninsula — that seven-story Boystown and Girlstown communities would expand to seven different countries in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. During those early days, when Father Al explained to the community of 12 women “our role is to mingle our blood with the blood of Christ, and to shed our blood with that of Christ to the poor. … The way we serve is to have a constant crown of thorns,” he didn’t know he was laying the foundation for the largest Catholic system of care for the orphan and tormented child in the history of the world.  

This past Lent, I visited Tanzania to meet the test-taking students and to see the Sisters of Mary’s latest venture to educate, house and raise up thousands of Africa’s poorest children. 

The sisters had never forgotten the dream of Father Al, who shared before he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1992 that he felt God pulling him to Africa. 

Twenty-five years later, a few sisters took a leap of faith and boarded a flight to Tanzania. 

They never left. 

The nation of more than 62 million people is located just below the equator on the southeast coast of the Indian Ocean. Although Tanzanians live mostly in peace, the vast majority of residents live well below the poverty line in a land oppressed by witchcraft, drought, joblessness and isolation. 

No Tanzanian child who has taken the test has ever tasted chocolate or viewed a movie, so they wouldn’t get the metaphor: The exam is a once-in-a-million chance with the Willy Wonka candy bar. In these testing rooms are saucer-eyed Charlie Buckets unwrapping the potential golden-leafed wrapper, the pinhole of hope that over the years throughout the world has broken generational curses of villages trapped in the violence of poverty. 

The Sisters of Mary Boystown
Tanzania-native Sister of Mary Asella Kokugonza Ernest sits next to Aneck in his home; Aneck had just passed the exam and is now a student at Boystown.(Photo: The Sisters of Mary)

Jackline, an 18-year-old fourth-year student at Girlstown, had just survived a brush with death before taking the test from her island home on one of the most remote places in the world: Ukara Island is a scar of parched land jutting above the surface of Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest lake. A missionary priest from the island contacted the Sisters of Mary and pleaded for them to come. Jackline had been bitten by one of the small island’s many large poisonous snakes that was coiled in a corner of the family’s mud hut. “I asked Mary to save me; but for six months, the venom stayed in me. I couldn’t get out of bed,” Jackline said.

Sisters of Mary Maureen and Vaileth boarded a bus in Dar es Salaam and began a 28-hour journey by land and sea to reach Jackline and the poor island children. When they boarded the small boat by the coastal town of Mwanza, they didn’t know they would be ferried along with a corpse. When Lake Victoria’s winds began to gust a few hundred yards from the mainland, the boat began to feel thin beneath the sisters’ feet, so they busied themselves by praying for the soul of the dead woman to be buried on Ukara Island.    

When they reached the lonesome island, the sisters were brought to a weak-but-recovering Jackline, who stood smiling shyly. After warm greetings from the sisters, the exam was administered to Jackline and other island-dwellers. Jackline hadn’t eaten that day. She passed.

The Sisters of Mary Jackline
L to R: Jackline, the day she was rescued from Ukara Island, and the fourth-year-student as she sews during class at Girlstown.(Photo: The Sisters of Mary)

“When they called my name, it sounded like a miracle,” said Jackline, who has a goal to become an accountant. “Somehow, the sisters found me. I had never left the island, and now I’m here with a future. God saved me; the Sisters of Mary saved me.”

Over the course of the past half-century, more than a million of the world’s poorest children have taken the exam, where they answered math, English, science, history and reading-comprehension questions. A little over 175,000 children have passed and graduated. It is with broken hearts that the Sisters of Mary know that those who’ve failed cannot be admitted; not only is there not enough room, but the stiff challenges of the classroom, homework and the breadth of new subject matter quickly leaves these children working to catch up, which history has shown to be unsuccessful.

Sisters of Mary's Girlstown
The Sisters of Mary's Girlstown community in a remote outpost outside of Dar es Salam, Tanzania, is seen during Lent 2024. Today, there are 909 girls being educated by 23 sisters at Girlstowns in Tanzania.(Photo: The Sisters of Mary)

Those children who’ve passed and graduated have gone on to run companies. They’ve become teachers, professional athletes, bricklayers, dentists and operators of family farms. They are today’s orchestral musicians, nurses, poets, soldiers, policemen and architects. Some have entered seminaries and cloisters, going on to become priests and nuns. Others have moved into parishes and began to volunteer as catechists, lectors and spiritual big sisters and brothers to the poor. 

The Sisters of Mary teens
Teenage boys enjoy the favored sport of Tanzania on the Boystown community pitch outside of Dodoma, Tanzania. A Boystown graduate from the Philippines went on to play in the World Cup and become one of the finest players in the country’s history.(Photo: The Sisters of Mary)

Tens of thousands of them, of course, would be dead, trafficked, homeless or in the midst of enduring a lifetime of looking for the next meal were it not for the Sisters of Mary’s redoubtable instinct to save them.  

“It is the mission Father Al gave us,” said Sister Merry Jane Talines, the Filipino nun who heads Girlstown in a village outside of Dar es Salaam. “We were to look for the most vulnerable children, and we do our best to find them.”

Simayo grew up in the brush in the wilds of Ngorongoro in northeastern Tanzania, which means she lived among man-eating lions. Two boys she knew were eaten by lions; a third was mauled before escaping up a tree. He died the next day. An elephant stomped a man to death, kicked him into a shallow hole and sat on him for six days to make certain the man was dead. The Sisters of Mary travel to this remote region of Africa each year to recruit students.

“We saw elephants outside our classroom most days,” said Simayo, a 15-year-old student. “The violent ones would make rushes at us when we walked home. … When they crushed our water pipe, we had no water in the village. So we had to walk two and three hours to get to a pond for water. We went when we knew the lions were sleeping.”

On a recent recruitment trip, an elephant ransacked the back door of the house where the sisters were sleeping and ate the entirety of the vegetables and corn mash that had been prepared for them. So the sisters went without food as they visited the poor and administered the test, frequently scanning their surroundings, looking for lions, elephants, leopards and other animals. 

“Where does courage come from? I would say it comes from obedience. We serve the poorest of the poor,” said Sister Theresa Ladia, a nun from the Philippines who heads Dodoma Boystown. “Of course, we have the interior battles, and we find ourselves sometimes crying, but that is the work. We know to keep moving forward for the children.”

Naurey was a beautiful preteen whose alcoholic father was intent on selling her to an elderly man for a cow. Trafficking one’s own child is one of the demonic realities of life in impoverished countries. The family of seven lived high up a mountain and had little food, with no money. They shared their hut made of dried cow dung with their 12 goats, their lone possessions. 

Naurey’s mother didn’t want to lose her daughter to an unknown man, so disharmony and fights darkened their home. She prayed to God for resolve, for a miracle — and then, one day, she saw a pair of Sisters of Mary entering their village. The sisters had just taken a treacherous two-hour car ride up their mountain. When the path ended, they were taxied up goat paths on small motorcycles to get to the village of Malambo. After the seven-hour trip up the mountain, they gathered the poor and administered the test. Naurey passed. 

“I have life now,” said Naurey, who intends to become a teacher. “I was saved from a life I didn’t want. The sisters saved me.”

Kevin Wells is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker and author.


The Sisters of Mary World Villages for Children is a nonprofit organization that financially supports the Sisters of Mary in their quest to help children break free from a life of poverty and trafficking and lead them to Christ and the Catholic faith. SOM-WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education and vocational training to more than 20,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns around the world. To donate to the Sisters of Mary, please visit: WorldVillages.org/poverty.

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