I found a project notice, “International volunteer activities in Africa for an extreme school makeover project,” on the website of a global business presidents’ network called the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). The project was to run from August 5 to August 10. This was just after a national Go tournament for my children. I mailed the website address to my wife and asked for her opinion. She responded, “It might be a good idea for our family to take part in a program like this.” So I promptly registered all my family members for the project.
The seven of us left our house at 4 p.m. on August 3, the day after the Go tournament concluded. From Narita, we flew seven hours south to Singapore, spent two hours in transit there, and then took an eleven-hour flight to Johannesburg across the Indian Ocean. After waiting four hours in Johannesburg for a connection flight, we flew to an airport in Zimbabwe. We arrived at the Zimbabwean airport just past 2 p.m. local time, and reached our hotel shortly after 3 p.m. Taking the seven-hour time difference into consideration, the journey took us 30 hours, door-to-door.
After checking in, I looked out through the window in our hotel room. The hotel stood on a hill, so the window offered an invigorating view of the surrounding area. An endless plain stretched outside. I could see all the way to the horizon, with absolutely no manmade object or mountain blocking the view. Tanzania’s Serengeti was a dry flat meadow savanna, on the other hand, this plain looked more like a thin grove. (Or perhaps it is better described as a series of open forests.) And when I say “grove,” I don’t mean a lush green one. Spots of pale green could be seen here and there in the sea of yellowish brown, a reflection of the dry weather.
There was a pond at the foot of the hill on which this hotel stood. Wild animals would visit in turn. Elephants were the first. Buffaloes followed. Then, the impalas appeared. In the early evening, we could see the sun melting into the horizon. The blue sky was painted a glowing red by the sunset, then turned quietly black before a blanket of stars emerged.
While I dealt with a huge backlog of emails, my family enjoyed an encounter with nature, followed by an early dinner and bed.
Fortunately, we had arrived in the country one day before the project launch. We were able to spend a full day adjusting to the time difference and recovering from the long journey. We were able to relax on the morning of the following day, as well as, visiting a nearby crocodile farm and taking a swim in a hotel pool. More than 50 vultures circled high over our swimming pool, as they were waiting for to be fed by the hotel employees at 1 p.m. It was a spectacular sight to see the vultures gliding down from above and getting into their food on the ground.
Before we knew it, business managers and their families had assembled at the hotel from around the world. After a late lunch, we attended the orientation for the project.
The orientation began with an explanation about the project.
“This project is called Isikolo Project. ‘Isikolo’ means ‘school’ in the local language. The aim of the project is to rebuild a devastated school.”
In Japan, we might refer to a “devastated school” as one where discipline has been lost. In Zimbabwe, however, a devastated school means exactly just that: a school that has been physically destroyed. With a population of around 12 million people, Zimbabwe ranks among the poorest nations in the world. It has struggled for 30 years under the tyrannical rule of President Robert Mugabe, who seized power in 1980. With the support of the military, Mugabe has remained president, despite losing two democratic elections held under his rule. Largely because of his abuses, the Zimbabwean economy has remained in chaos. There are no jobs. I heard later that the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe ran between 80% and 90%. Per-capita GDP was around 500 U.S. dollars, one-eightieth of the level of Japan.
“The primary school buildings were destroyed as a result of the turmoil. The buildings have no roofs. Their walls are cracked, doors are broken, and windows are left broken. The toilets stink and are totally unusable. Desks and chairs have also been broken,. Right now, forty-five children are sharing one textbook. The Baobab Primary School, which was chosen for extreme school makeover project, has 1,000 pupils. It was originally built to hold only about 350. Most classes end up being held outside under the shade of trees, because there are not enough classrooms to accommodate the children.”
The explanations provided by project organizers were accompanied by a slide show. The photos projected on the screen depicted a dire situation. The explanations continued.
“Naturally, we don’t have the skills needed to renovate the school buildings. And what we can do in just four to five days is limited. So, we have channeled the greater portion of the participation fees collected from you into donations. We’ve made considerable progress with construction thanks to the funds raised in this way. What we are going to do is to add the finishing touches. That is to say, we are going to do things like laying blocks, painting buildings, setting up basketball courts and repairing play equipment at a kindergarten.”
The Baobab Primary School chosen for the project was located in a relatively wealthy neighborhood. For that reason, the school was not targeted for assistance given by nongovernmental organizations (NGO). But economic conditions have been too severe even for this school. Parents no longer have the money to buy stationery for their children, because hyperinflation is causing prices to rise by a factor of 30 each month. The AIDS epidemic dealt an additional blow to the school. Twenty-five percent of the 1,000 children studying at the school, or 250 pupils, are said to be orphans. Their parents reportedly died of AIDS.
“This project,” explained a project organizer, “is designed to help the children, rebuild the school and support the community.”
The orientation ended, and all project participants went on a cruise down the Zambezi. Elephants played on the banks. Buffalos visited the river to drink. The faces of hippos occasionally broke the surface of the water. Our guide told us there were crocodiles underwater.
I looked around inside the ship. There were slightly more than 70 participants. A total of 21 families had gathered for the project from all over the world. About half were adults. The rest were their children. The ages of the children ranged widely, from four (my fifth son) to 23. We were the only family to take part from Asia. Because of that, I felt we must work hard as representatives of Asia.
August 8, 2010
From a hotel in Zimbabwe