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INTERVIEW: Maja Sajler Garmaz
Wednesday, 11 April 2012 Written by Administrator

Maja Sajler GarmazIn Three Months We’ve Gathered Enough Money to Start the Construction of a School in Kivumu, Africa

Two journalists, Maja Sajler Garmaz and Željko Garmaz, who are married to each other, wrote a book entitled “Our Man in Africa” (“Naš čo’ek u Africi”) after their trip to Africa.

Maja and Željko went to Africa for their honeymoon. They returned full of impressions and with a firm decision to help the local people. The construction of the school starts this month and it will be able to accommodate at least 400 students.

Accidental Love

* (To Maja) When did your heart start to beat for Africa, the children and the Rwandan people? How did that ‘click’ in your heads happen that made you want and be able to help them?

– Actually, it all started completely by chance. When we met, Željko was already a great lover of Africa. He had visited many African countries, at first as a wartime reporter, and after that he used his every vacation to travel and get to know the ‘Dark Continent’. He immediately passed on that love for travelling, adventure and, of course, Africa to me. After we had visited Tunisia and South Africa, I felt a desire to see what ‘real’ Africa looks like.

When we got married in September of 2006, we decided to spend our honeymoon somewhere on that magical continent. I wanted to go to the Virunga Mountains and see the mountain gorillas, and Željko wanted us to climb the 3470 m high peak of the Nyiragongo active volcano in Congo DR. We decided to set up a ‘base’ somewhere in Rwanda, and spend a month going to the places we wanted to see.

While we were organizing the entire trip, we found out that our Croatian missionaries work in Rwanda, fra Ivica Perić among them. Željko contacted him by e-mail with the intention of asking someone who’s already a ‘local’ there about the basic information.  Fra Ivica surprised us quite a bit with his reply. He wrote to Željko: “My man, don’t worry a bit. You just come!” He offered us accommodation in the Kivumu mission, some forty kilometres from the capital of Kigali. That e-mail and that offer were the beginning of a great friendship. Fra Ivica became like a member of our family. Spending a month in a village without electricity, where people live in little houses made of mud and cow dung, is something that has to change you. Children there eat a warm meal two to three times a week… And, despite that, despite the really hard living conditions, they are always cheerful, happy and smiling!

Željko GarmazAlready then, there was a ‘click’ between us and fra Ivica. It’s as simple as that. You come, you see, and you know you have to try to help. Since Željko and I are journalists, we did what we knew best. We immediately got down to business and started to help with writing the articles for the website:, through which fra Ivica informs donors throughout the world about everything that is happening in the mission.

The fact that we were in Croatia and fra Ivica was in Rwanda didn’t stop us from working on the webpage articles even after we returned home, even today. Edvard Skejić from Stobreč (Croatia), who designed and maintains the website, has helped us a great deal in the process.

So, there you have it, we went there to see the gorillas and the volcano. We saw the gorillas, climbed the volcano, and slept on the top of the crater. We also visited Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, a part of Congo DR, a part of Kenya, but the reasons why we are always happy to return to Rwanda are fra Ivica, the children and Kivumu’s people. We have come back to Rwanda -- that is Kivumu -- on two more occasions. And we are going there again soon!

You Come, You See, You Help

Željko, Maja & fra Ivica* After you had come back from Africa, you wrote and self-published a book entitled “Our Man in Africa” (“Naš čo’ek u Africi”). How did the public receive the book?

– The more we got to know fra Ivica, the more interesting his life and missionary work became to us. We realized that it would be a shame if such a story remained unknown. Apart from telling fra Ivica’s story, the book also speaks about Uganda, Rwanda, Congo DR, the traditions, the customs, the people. We put in the book everything we have heard, seen, learned and felt there, everything that touched us, made us cry or laugh, disappointed or impressed us there. So one can say the book is a biographical itinerary. The public – we were delighted to see – received the book with great enthusiasm.

People from all over the world called us. “Our Man in Africa” is being read in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, America, and even Australia! In just three months, we managed to gather enough money from the sale of the book to be able to start the construction of the school! Let me explain... We renounced all profit from the sale of the book so that the money can be used to build a secondary school in the Kivumu Parish - a school which will be able to accommodate as many as 1000 students. We give away the book for free in exchange for a 10 Euro donation. We didn’t sell it through bookstores. Željko and I, with the help of our dear friends and family, managed the distribution by ourselves as. All interested in buying the book can order by e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . At the moment, the book is only in Croatian language, but we are hoping to have it translated – at least into English – in the near future.

Kids in school get a hot meal every day* In what other ways you help the people in Rwanda? How often do you speak to them?

– Apart from the money earned through the sale, the book was also very useful to fra Ivica’s mission because it spread the word around the world about the secondary school construction project. We have heard from people who want to help out with larger donations, much larger than the book “price” we set. In addition, a friend of ours, Višnja Kljajić, who is an architect, recently went to Rwanda as a volunteer and designed the entire building for the future school.

The school will consist of two ground-floor buildings, which will house classrooms, workshops, a library and a computer room… We have gathered enough money to be able to start the construction of the first building. We don’t have to wait to gather enough money for both buildings, because even this one building can operate as an independent whole, and so, when it is completed, the first generation of students, at least 400 of them, will be able to immediately start their education.

We also founded a charity organization called “Heart for Africa” (“Srce za Afriku”) through which we collect donations to help fra Ivica’s mission. Our goal is not only to ask for money from the people, but to give them something in return as well. Therefore, besides the book that Željko and I wrote, the students of Kivumu have sent us local handiwork: pictures and cards made of banana tree bark, painted fabric, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, baskets… Every person that makes a donation to help the mission, if desired, can get something as a gift.

We talk to fra Ivica on a daily basis. E-mail and Skype – those “wonders of technology” - have greatly helped us to stay in touch. I even dare to say that, thanks to IT, Željko and I are actually in Rwanda every day!

A Warm Meal for 0.50 Euro

* To what degree are the citizens of Croatia (and other countries) aware that just half a Euro is enough to feed one child? What is their living standard compared to ours and, on the other hand, what are the differences when it comes to perceiving life and enjoying it?

– The mere reference to Africa evokes “hunger” and “poverty” in many people’s minds. People are aware of the situation there, but prefer to hear about it first-hand from people who have actually seen it.  People often call and send us e-mails and ask questions because they are curious about the situation in Rwanda. Naturally, people want to make sure their money is going into the right hands. I assure them that it is, and they will soon be able to see for themselves when we start the construction of the secondary school.

In his mission, fra Ivica already runs a secondary vocational school, the Padri Vjeko Centre, where children are trained in six different trades: tailors, carpenters, builders, electricians, welders and plumbers. At this moment, the school is attended by 327 students. The children get a warm meal in the school every day. To them it is something incredibly precious, and the cost of a child’s daily meal, thanks to the big garden they keep as a part of the friary, is around half a euro.

* What kind of a school are you gathering donations for?

– A secondary academic school is planned. Secondary education in Rwanda takes six years, and you have to pay 300 euros per year. Parents, who didn’t have the chance to go to school and complete their own education, cannot afford it. Many of them work an entire day doing hard labour for a wage of just one dollar. To the children of Kivumu, therefore, going to school is just an unattainable dream. We would like to change that. Just like the existing technical school, the future academic school will be free for all students. And it will bring great benefits and progress to this parish with a population of 35 thousand inhabitants. The fact that more than 90 percent of the kids who completed the technical school found a job just reassures us in our intentions!

Their standard of living can in no way be compared to ours. It’s hard to describe it all in just few sentences. That’s why I often say that what is considered to be poverty in Croatia is considered to be prosperity in Africa. All the same, they are always smiling and cheerful. And they cope. The children have no toys. They make balls by binding banana leaves with a twine. Many of them have never tasted meat in their lives, let alone candy.

* What is your next move? When do you leave for Africa again?

– Currently we are focusing on bringing the secondary school construction project to a successful completion. And we are going to Rwanda in mid-April, to stick the first shovel in the ground! You see, we are going there to witness the beginning of the construction of the secondary school. We are immensely happy to be a part of this great project. For the children in Rwanda, education is the only potential way out of poverty. It is the only way you can bring progress to a society.

What we have learned there is that you shouldn’t give fish to the people, but you should teach them to fish. Only by doing that can we tackle the problem of poverty on the long run. Children should learn and prepare for life from an early age onward.

So our mission and our goal is to help those people, above all the children who, like all children in this world, deserve to go to school. Every child needs help, regardless of the kilometres that divide us, the borders, the colour of our skin.

Translated by: Branimir Mlakić
Edited by: Valerie Kae Ken

Father Vjeko Center

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