The tragic death of Dr. Ottilia Chareka last Wednesday (March 16) in Antigonish shocked and saddened a community.
Hundreds upon hundreds paid their respects over the weekend during a wake and memorial service which honoured her life.
Originally from Zimbabwe, (Bikita, Province of Masvingo) where she completed her teacher education training, Chareka obtained a diploma in advance undergraduate studies (social studies) in 1993 and M. Ed in 1994 from the University of New Brunswick.
She returned to Zimbabwe to teach and later returned to Canada, in May 2001, to pursue her doctoral studies and worked as a research assistant for the Spirit of Democracy Project.
At the time of her death, Chareka held the position of associate professor in the Faculty of Education at St. F.X.
During her tenure at the university, she taught a variety of courses in both the Bachelor of Education and Masters of Education programs.
“The university community is in mourning,” Sean Riley, St. F.X. president said on Friday afternoon. “Dr. Chareka was well-known, well-liked… she was an energetic, active person.”
Riley noted her leadership roles in establishing a new initiative in the Bachelor of Education program for African Nova Scotians and also in the creation and advancement of the Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey School Improvement program.
“And within the broader university community, she was secretary of the senate and served as well on the academic planning and prioritize committee,” Riley said. “I got to know her well on a selection committee for some senior administrative appointments.”
The many roles paint a picture of a busy, dedicated person and Riley described her as a “very hard worker.”
“(She) taught not only on the campus but elsewhere around the province in programs I mentioned,” he said. “She had a lot on her plate, obviously, with family commitments and all the university service. It really leaves the university in mourning for what I think everyone would recognize as very tragic circumstances.”
Her interests, reflected in her teaching Riley said, demonstrate a person of compassion and social awareness.
“She had a very active interest in clusivity and promoting a society which provide opportunities for all members of that society,” he said.
Friend and fellow educator Jennifer Desmond echoed those thoughts.
“She was an educator who believed in justice,” Desmond said. “She practiced it in her teaching and her every day life.”
Desmond talked about Chareka as an inspiration for not only those who knew her, but also those touched by her work and many good deeds.
“She was definitely a role model and mentor to African Nova Scotian women and women in general,” Desmond said. “It’s an indeed a lost to the community, such a tragedy.”
She also talked about the children left behind by the tragedy.
“As a mother myself I can’t imagine how her children are feeling right now,” she said. “My heart goes out to them.”
Chareka is survived by daughters Missy ‘Praymore’ 23, Patience 18, Patricia 16, Primrose 14 and Prisca three years of age.
A memorial fund has been set up for the children at the Bergengren Credit Union in Antigonish. Donations in memory of Chareka can be made payable to the fund.
Information on the fund can be found on the St. F.X. website and navigating to the Faculty of Education page.
“(The talk) around where we go from here… all the efforts of our faculty, friends and colleagues, on and off campus, is about how do we honour and support the five girls that Ottilia leaves behind,” Jeff Orr, dean of education at St. F.X. said. “Anyone who has any feeling of looking for what to do, the Memorial Fund for the Children of Ottilia Chareka is very, very crucial for our future along side those girls.”
Orr, in his position as dean of the department Chareka worked in, had a great vantage point to see her above-and-beyond approach.
“Whether she taught that student or not,” he said, noting her genuine interest in people. “For instance there was a student she interviewed coming into the B. Ed program but never had the opportunity to teach. She remembered her when she saw the student again. The student was a single mother who had to travel and Ottilia maintained an ongoing, personal connection with that woman over the last two years.
“To me, that’s an example of how Ottilia lived her life. Every person she encountered, she was so curious and interested in and affirming of their life.”
Orr also talked about how Chareka personified the ideals of their department.
“We’ve built our Faculty of Education culture on inclusion, justice and equity over the last two decades and she came into our lives with the same mind set and added such incredible value, quality and commitment. She enriched it so much.”
He also talked about her impressive ability to stretch her teaching skills out to an incredible range.
“There was all of that, the charm, the passion for things and behind it was an incredible versatility,” he said. “Ottilia taught a wide range of areas and thrived on helping lead various areas in our program.
“In such diverse things as diverse cultures, which is really about multi-cultural, anti-racist education, and all the way through to quantitative research methods and school data management which are kind of at the other end of the educational spectrum. I think it showed her energy, intelligence and commitment.”
Also on the faculty’s web-page is information about a Memory Book of Ottilia Chareka being put together to be given to her family.
Cara Jones, who made a film featuring Chareka called Familiar Strangers, which can be seen by accessing the Casket or St. F.X. website amongst other places, said she met Chareka through her mother.
“My mother is her Canadian mother,” Jones said.
As for her own relationship with Chareka, Jones, like Desmond, talked about her ability to inspire.
“She was all about empowering people,” she said. “She empowered me to value myself.
“She may be gone physically but her legacy is going to live on forever in all the people she touched and those people who will spread her message,” Jones added.
“I think she was a leader and she will continue to be a leader.”