Spotlight on a Community Hero: Mrs. Steriah Tembo

By Ciaran O'Reilly

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  


I first met Mrs. Steriah Tembo in December 2014. Having arrived in Zambia a year earlier, and met my partner Diana some months later, we decided that for our first Christmas together we would do something for one of the many orphanages and community schools in the country. After asking friends and colleagues, we learned of Greenhill Community School and Orphanage, and soon met the woman behind it who would quickly become a friend and an inspiration.

Born in rural Zambia in 1957, Mrs. Tembo had a successful career working in the capital city Lusaka at the University of Zambia, the country's largest third level educational institute. Upon retirement in 1997, she began building a new home for herself and her husband in Chamba Valley, a peri-urban suburb of Lusaka. At the same time, she was teaching at the local Sunday school and quickly realised just how high the level of illiteracy was among the children of the community. In this large, impoverished and densely-populated neighbourhood, the children had been failed. Quality schools and indeed quality teachers who themselves were able to read and write well enough to teach were simply not available.

Recognising the opportunity to put her education and time to good use, Mrs. Tembo founded Greenhill Community School. Initially, the school consisted of simply teaching dozens of children under a large tree atop a hill overlooking the community. Providing shelter from the sun and the rain, this tree was a place where children could come and finally learn to read, write and understand the world. Mrs. Tembo also realised that some of the children coming to her had no family support and often nowhere to sleep and live. So she sacrificed her newly-built house, just metres from the tree, into a boarding home for girls who needed a place to stay while they attended school. Her bedroom became theirs, and hers became a small, cramped room probably once intended as a utility or storage space. Later funding allowed for the construction of a similar building for boys. These buildings became known as 'My Place, Our Place', accommodating children who for various reasons have been sent from their homes across Lusaka and indeed the country to be cared for, fed and taught at Greenhill. Many of these children are orphans, having lost one or both parents (referred to in Zambia as 'double orphans') and left with relatives unable or unwilling to offer support. Some of these children are lucky enough to be able to return to their villages during school holidays to stay with such relatives temporarily. Those who have nobody remain behind on the school grounds during these quiet times, waiting for the term to restart and their friends to return. And so Greenhill became not just a community school but also an orphanage. Her gentle and kind manner became a motherly presence for all of the children, her love for them quite evident to anyone who came to visit.

With the help of community donations, some minimal government assistance, the availability of teacher trainees and occasional funding from organisations such as UNICEF, the German Embassy and Irish Aid, the school has grown into a multi-building complex atop that same hill, teaching over 400 children each year. Money is also gained by growing crops in the surrounding fields and selling any surplus left after feeding the children. However, while there are buildings and tables and chairs and beds, the students and orphans of Greenhill continue to live in considerable poverty. There are teenaged boys sharing broken single beds, shattered windows letting in mosquitoes, rain and wind, and it is a constant struggle to obtain food, teaching materials and sanitation basics such as soap and toothpaste. Between 30 and 50 orphans stay there at any one time, fed every day along with some elderly members of the local community too poor, old or unwell to feed themselves.

Mrs. Steriah Tembo died suddenly on the 30th of January, 2016. As someone suffering with both diabetes and high blood pressure, she had recently gone through a period of severe illness but at the time of her death she appeared to be recovering. Once strong enough, she had returned as soon as possible to Greenhill and was there on the day she died. Her body now rests at Greenhill, overlooking the maize fields and towards the setting sun. Her loss was felt deeply by everyone, not least her husband and children who continue to run the organisation as best as they can in her absence. I can also speak of considerable grief felt by both myself and Diana at losing someone whom we admired and liked so much.

Women in Zambia suffer from a great deal of gender-based violence, discrimination and lack of opportunity. Many marry while still very young, the levels of violence against women is extremely high and general cultural and societal biases prevent women from fair and equal access to means of income, opportunity and participation. Mrs. Tembo would have been forgiven for simply enjoying retirement after a long and hard-working career. Instead she gave over her house and every last day of her life to improve the lives of children that weren't her own. How many of us can honestly say we would do the same? How many of us, if we look hard enough, can find women – and indeed men – doing something similar in our own communities? We must seek out these community heroes and support them when and where we can. They are the people making a real difference in our world on a daily basis, and deserve every bit of respect and help that they can get. And in the words of Steriah's daughter, their legacy can also inspire us to do something too:

“We lost a mother, hero, a powerful woman and above all a God-fearing woman. We as family, the pupils at Greenhill and the community at large greatly miss her. She was a very rare person with a heart of love. We as the Tembo family [...] will continue her dream of taking care of the orphaned and vulnerable children".

The photo is the author's own titled, "Mrs. Tembo with Greenhill pupils, December 2014".