The unsung (S)hero of Tanzania

Sr. Jean Pruitt

I received the sad news yesterday about the decease of a person that many of us held very dear — Sister Jean Pruitt. When I posted on my social media accounts about her death, I got very sparse reaction and the most common question was “Who is she?”

Ok let’s start with the fact that there is the option to Google and find out that there is in fact a Wikipedia page on her (yes THE Wikipedia that’s how important she is!) and the young generation of Tanzania knows more about Gigi Hadid than Sister Jean Pruitt! Now how sad is that?

I will spare my rant on the subject of how young (and not so young) people in Tanzania know more about US pop culture than their own history, for now let me focus on what I want to emphasis.

Sister Jean with the children of Dogodogo

Sister Jean Pruitt was Tanzanian — not on paper but in Spirit. She came to our country in 1969 and died here in 2017. But her life was not that of prayer and small works of charity (she did that a lot) but what she did for Tanzanian Art and for the children of Tanzania especially the abandoned, downtrodden children of Tanzania. It is something that many of us are yet to emulate! I am not sure how many of us had visited Dogodogo center when it was there next to Sno Cream behind St Joseph Cathedral — I had as a child and later as a young student, then as a TV/film producer. What Sister Jean had done to create a center to help children living on the street is something that people will only read about.

Nyumba ya Sanaa with Lilanga art in stone slabs

How many of us remember the original beautiful Nyumba ya Sanaa? Which Sister Jean personally asked Mwalimu Julius Nyerere to give land for? Our Founding Father Julius Nyerere gave that precious piece of land right on the corner of the Gymkhana Club to the Trust because of Sister Jean’s intervention. She wanted it to be not only an art center but also a place where handicapped people learned arts and craft and produce work for sale.

President Nyerere chose that piece of land for the artists — Sister Jean always reminded anyone who listened. The most devastating news for her was when Nyumba ya Sanaa was sold off for land developers and now a glass tower stands there housing NMB bank

The current building standing on the site of the original Nyumba ya Sanaa

Sister Jean never supported that and even the last time I met her, she talked about what a shame it is that we all kept quiet when they demolished the historic building. Again that is another story that needs to be told and in her memory — it will be told!

In her final years, Sister Jean turned to the young and to art and combined it through the Vipaji Foundation. She always believed that art was not just something lofty but a creative outlet for children especially and encouraged even at Dogodogo but later every child to find that creativity. Many people visit Vipaji in Oysterbay and have no idea that this wonderful woman is behind this great project.

But I would also like people to know that Sister Jean Pruitt cared deeply about the abuse of children. The last event I was with her was about “Ending Violence against Children” and an evening with Dr. Jane Goodall.

It was a great evening and she asked me to give something that was very precious for both of us — a copy of the series “Elfu Huanza Moja” a film on 5 children who were abused — to Dr Jane Goodall. “Elfu Huanza Moja” was born in Sister Jean’s heart and mind and I executed it with my own creativity as producer and director. The film went on to win international awards at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and FESPACO. I remember vividly how we were all so thrilled and happy about it, not for the prize but for the recognition and that our message got out so far and touched the hearts of many. It was at this event in July this year, that Sister Jean and I decided that violence against children has not decreased but increased and we need to do another film with another perspective of the forms of abuse and violence against children.

Photo I took yesterday with the FESPACO prize from Plan International on Children rights that our film “Elfu Huanza Moja” won. I pledge to do the new film we planned with Sister Jean!

I pledge to do that film in her honor.

So why is Sister Jean an unsung hero (heroine or (s)hero )of Tanzania? Why haven’t we seen or heard more about her accomplishments? Because she never thought what she did was a big deal. She would often wave away any attempt to praise her or to make what she did grand, and she would always very pragmatically point out that there is more work to be done. And she was right, as always! She never stopped fighting for the children of Tanzania. Never! And she deserves to be recognized by every Tanzanian for the great work and the beautiful soul that she was.

Rest with Angels, Sister Jean

Media and Communications expert, #ChangeTanzania #GoodTrouble activist