Japanese stranger finds friends in high places

VietNamNet Bridge – Takeda Masayuki was shocked. He could not imagine a house without a toilet, but a whole village without one?

And this is where he was going to spend the next two years or so!

Masayuki had already been a bit worried and anxious when he heard that he would be sent to volunteer at an ethnic minority village in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai.

JICA Mang Yang project, Takeda Masayuki, Gia Lai

One of the boys: Takeda Masayuki enjoys Can wine with Hlim villagers in Lo Pang Commune.

When he set foot in the village for the first time, the worry turned into fear.

It was not just that he could not imagine how he was going to live among the ethnic people who spoke a different language and had a completely alien culture. He also did not know what he could do to help them.

To make things worse, the 30-year-old animal nutrition expert from Japan had not experienced such basic living conditions before.

Lo Pang Commune, where Hlim Village is located, is about 56 kilometres from Pleiku City, the provincial capital. The commune is among the poorest in Mang Yang District. Most of its residents, 96 per cent, belong to the Ba Na, who subsist on cultivation and husbandry.

In the village, the street leading to Masayuki's accommodation was narrow and ran up a steep slope. The roads that ran between villages in the commune were mostly degraded, making travel and transportation a challenge.

Masayuki, an employee of the National Livestock Breeding Centre in Japan's Fukushima Province, had left Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture to become a volunteer in Viet Nam for two years.

The thought of living alone in the remote, impoverished Hlim Village haunted him.

The first three days were the most difficult, he recalls today. The frugal meals and unhygienic conditions unsettled him at first.

"At that time, I really did not know what to do. I wondered if I would be able to bear this situation for two years."

But he did not give up.

Whenever his spirits sank low, he exhorted himself: "Keep trying, keep trying."

He also motivated himself by remembering his dream to volunteer in poor areas and help local residents.

It was when he was studying at the Hokkaido University's Animal Nutrition Faculty that he first read about Japanese volunteers working in rural areas in all corners of the world. The stories inspired him. After his graduation, he worked with the National Livestock Breeding Centre in Japan for three years before he began looking for volunteering opportunities.

He applied to one programme run by the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). To his surprise, his application was successful and he was assigned to volunteer in Viet Nam.

Unlike other Japanese volunteers, Masayuki was sent to stay with a local household in Hlim Village so that he could develop a deeper understanding of the Ba Na people's customs, lifestyles as well as their cultivation and husbandry techniques.

He was armed with the limited Vietnamese vocabulary he had picked up during two months of training in Japan and one more month in Ha Noi.

"So I always tried to listen very carefully and speak with villagers in Vietnamese," he said.

His strategy has worked. Masayuki can speak Vietnamese very well now.

JICA Mang Yang project, Takeda Masayuki, Gia Lai

Growing hope: Takeda Masayuki checks the quality of organic fertiliser for Per, a farmer in Kon Thup Commune's Dak Trang Village.

Moreover, in more than one year of living with the Ba Na, he has been able to pick up a bit of their language as well.

Once he had overcome his initial fears and hesitations, Masayuki talked to the villagers to learn more about the difficulties they were facing in cultivating crops and rearing animals. He also visited other villages in the communes of Lo Pang and Kon Thup.

Through these meetings, the Japanese volunteer and residents of the village as well as neighbouring localities identified three activities - building cowsheds, improving the soil with an organic fertilizer named "Bokashi" and planting pepper and coffee trees.

They were helped by JICA experts in agriculture and participatory development and Vietnamese experts from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as well as the Veterinary Station in Mang Yang District.

In the beginning, the JICA Mang Yang project and villagers built stable cowsheds so that they could collect manure for use in cultivation. In doing this, the JICA support came in the form of knowhow and the procurement of some materials like metal sheets, cement, stones and bricks; while the villagers contributed wood and their labour.

Making progress

A project applying the model has so far benefited 40 households in the two communes of Lo Pang and Kon Thup. Masayuki helped the villagers develop a model that combined animal husbandry and cultivation, under which the latter learnt how to make best use of things available in their homes, like cow dung, cassava peel, rice husk, rice straw and coffee husk.

In addition, he established two model households that grew grass for feeding cows raised by the 40 households. During this year's rainy season, the number of households planting grass has been steadily increasing.

Dinh Xit, Masayuki's host, said he had used organic fertilizer for the first time under the project, and it had helped his pepper vines grow quickly.

"Masayuki has been very enthusiastic in guiding me and my fellow villagers," Xit said.

For his part, Masayuki said he had become used to his life in Hlim and found it interesting. The warmth with the villagers have accepted him has made him happy, he said.

He said he particularly likes the time when villagers gather to relax after a day of hard work. This is something he seldom experienced in Japan.

"Being a volunteer has been the most useful and joyful and memorable experience in my life," Masayuki said.

Xit said that his friendly behaviour and sense of humour had endeared Masayuki to the villagers.

"We consider Masa [intimate name of Masayuki] our relative," he said.

I was able to see the connection for myself last week (July 11), when I visited the village and Mayasuki showed me around.

As we walked, people kept calling out: "Masa, have a drink with us," or "Masa, come home."

Source: VNS

JICA Mang Yang project, Takeda Masayuki, Gia Lai