James Conard’s extended ministry at Kowak Parish

Education Out of the Ashes

by Lynn F. Monahan;  From the pages of Maryknoll Magazine Aug 22, 2008

Educating young women, a Maryknoll Father helps build future in Tanzania.


As a young missionary new to Tanzania in the late 1950s, Maryknoll Father James Conard tried to establish a school in the African bush. Villagers burned it down, fearing the schoolhouse would attract outside government officials. The priest persisted and other villagers rebuilt the thatched classroom. The school and 12 other “bush schools” Maryknoll missioners founded in the area were seeds for the villages’ own government primary schools as the country grew from a colony to a modern nation. Today, an hour and a half away by pickup truck over dirt roads, the priest oversees a girls’ high school with almost 600 students.

“When I started the school in 1990, there had only been 40 girls who went to secondary school in North Mara,” he says of the rural area in northern Tanzania where he is pastor of St. Brigit Parish in Kowak. It is located in the hills between Lake Victoria and the famous Serengeti Plain.

More than 60 years after Maryknoll missioners arrived in 1946 to what is today Tanzania, the Kowak Girls’ Secondary School reflects the ongoing role of Catholic missioners as agents of change in the former British protectorate.

Convinced of the need to educate the population, Conard opted for those getting the least schooling: girls. The missioner from Green Bay, Wisconsin, says developing countries tend to educate boys first.

In less than two decades, the school has gone from a dream to a place among the top schools in Tanzania. Last year it ranked 69th of 1,200 schools taking the same national exam.

Most of the students attending the school come from the Lake Victoria port cities of nearby Musoma and Mwanza, Tanzania’s second-largest city, on the southern tip of the lake. Students also come from the capital, Dar es Salaam. Conard says the school accepts local students, but rural parents of the region often shun education, especially for girls, who are expected to marry and generate a dowry for the family.

Only in the last 20 years has education become widely available to girls in Tanzania, even though Julius Nyerere, the country’s founding president after independence in 1961, established universal primary education, says Maryknoll Lay Missioner Thomas Scott, who works as school bookkeeper.

Last year, with the construction of a new 80-bed dorm, the school’s capacity jumped from 510 to 600 students. The school is run by the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa, an order begun in Musoma in 1957. The Maryknoll Sisters helped nurture and educate its members, Conard says. The school does not allow day students; all are boarders.

“You have an advantage with a boarding school: they study,” Conard says. “If they go home, they work. They’ll be getting firewood, doing the cooking, going for water. That would be a ton of time.”

Scott, a retired chemical engineer from Houston, says the girls may not wander freely off the grounds, so the school maintains an on-campus store and canteen. He handles the students’ personal accounts so they do not keep cash in their rooms, disbursing funds deposited by their parents as the students need them.

While the Kowak school belongs to the Diocese of Musoma, it accepts students of all faiths based on their performance on a competitive entrance exam, Conard says. For the 100 openings the school has for each freshman class, the school gets 700 applications. With tuition at $400 a year, which is expensive in a poor country, many students receive scholarships or financial aid to stay in school.

Since the school’s first graduation in 1995, its students have gone to universities in Tanzania and abroad. They have become doctors, lawyers, social workers and other professionals.

Conard doesn’t measure success just by those who go to universities, but also by the contribution the school makes toward educating a young nation.

“The education of girls gives education to future mothers and families,” the priest says. “That is what is important.”