The morning of the fifth and final day came. As we had done on the previous days, we woke up at 6 a.m. It was still dark outside and the air was cold. It was Monday 4 p.m. in Japan . I chose to work, taking advantage of this brief free time. Internet access was poor, as it had been throughout our stay. I sent out emails and wrote my columns. The project participants gathered at 7:30 a.m. to be assigned to their teams.
My fifth son seemed to have been bitten by a spider or something the night before. His face was swollen. All the other members of my family were fine with only some small scratches. All seven of us were assigned to a team tasked with restoring the tennis and basketball courts that morning. It was my first non-painting assignment.
The reconstruction project had progressed with a speed far beyond my expectations, because all of the participants had worked so selflessly. There was little work left for our team to be done on this last day. Three tennis courts, originally with cracked ground and bumpy surface, had been restored beautifully, one of which had been transformed into a basketball court. We finished installing banners on the sides of the fences using wires, and cleaned the courts to add the finishing touches.
The work was finished ahead of schedule, and the team disbanded. Given that this was the final day, I wanted to fulfill my personal mission of contributing to the school, without worrying about the economic value of my labor, and so I went to an open-air classroom to work there as a helper. Here, I was assigned to straight physical labor, shoveling up rubble and stones and disposing of them. Later, I went to see if I could help some of the more skilled workers. Following their example and instruction, I painted chalkboards black, mixed plaster, and plastered walls.
Next, I joined the team in charge of the library and teachers’ room. Again, the work was physical. The job the team gave me was removing large pieces of rubble with a shovel. Again and again, I inserted my shovel beneath the rubble, lifted it up, and put it on a hand truck. Before I knew it, a blister had formed and burst near the base of my right thumb.
The siren sounded at noon, and our volunteer work was at an end. I made a tour of the school, my heart filled with a sense of completion and accomplishment. Work had been completed on all of the facilities, including the classroom I had painted, the restrooms, tennis courts, the basketball court, the kindergarten, the library, the teachers’ room and the outdoor classroom. They had become clean and beautiful. Broken desks and chairs had been restored to their original conditions and painted white.
We traveled back to our hotel on a team bus and had lunch there. My children finished their lunch quickly, and went to the swimming pool to have fun. I picked up some email with the help of a wireless LAN that offered faint waves and took care of my business while working on this column. Project participants reassembled at the hotel’s entrance at 2:45 p.m. and rode their buses back to the primary school. We were going to attend the handover ceremony.
Hundreds of local children were already sitting quietly on a lawn in the courtyard. They were all wearing their blue uniforms. Several big trees provided a comfortable shade. The overseas volunteer workers occupied the ground next to the trees in our own “uniforms,” which consisted of an orange cap and orange T-shirt. There was a courtyard section in front of us that was raised about one meter. It was to be used as a performing stage. The choir that received us on the first day took their position there in the shape of the letter U, and began singing songs of welcome.
The ceremony began at last. An organizer kicked off by explaining its purpose. The countries represented by volunteer workers were introduced several times. Japan was named after the United States, the country that had provided the largest group of participants. It was a moment that gave me the strong feeling that we represented Japan and the rest of Asia.
The ceremony proceeded with choir singing between speeches by the school principal and the mayor. Then, the list of items handed over was presented by fourteen children from among the volunteer workers, including my third son. They handed items that included soccer balls, tennis rackets, cricket bats, stationery, library catalogues and other symbolic gifts, over to the local children, shaking hands with them. Donations by many people were used to buy those items. We also donated 800 notebooks and 600 coloring books to the school.
At the end of the ceremony, an Education Ministry officer, occupying a position equivalent to a bureau chief, spoke. The woman had traveled more than 500 kilometers from the capital city of Harare just to attend this event. She delivered a powerful message to her audience.
“I ask teachers here not to exchange these items for dollars. I ask parents to always use these facilities with the children. I ask this community to carefully maintain the facilities and donated items, and work to improve the level of education.”
“Parents may feel satisfied when they pay for education. But children learn only when parents work together with them. “
“GINVING makes us happy. The Dead Sea is dead because it only takes things from others and never gives anything back to others.”
That is true. Volunteer workers are more than simple manpower. They may generate the economic value of just one dollar for each hour of work, but they can give love through their service. Performing volunteer work that soils our hands is the only way for us to stir emotions and influence people. We cannot achieve the same results simply by donating money. We feel happy when we GIVE something to others. This ceremony taught that to many people.
We sang “Isikolo Infundo,” the theme song for the project, together. The song title meant “our school and our education.” We sang this theme song again and again. Then dance music began to play. Everyone stood up and began dancing. We started running around the school following the direction of the project organizers. Blue uniforms mixed with orange T-shirts. The crowd began moving as one.
We turned right in front of the kindergarten painted by children, then, we passed the tennis and basketball courts that we had renovated. We made a turn looking at the open-air classroom on our right, and passed in front of a restored classroom. I kept running, watching local children look into the classroom and say, “Wow,” in their delight. We took a right turn after running by the restrooms—now clean and welcoming—and the new teacher’s room and library, and returned to the courtyard. There, members of the crowd began engaging with one another in their own ways.
My kids exchanged telephone numbers with the children they had befriended while working in the vulnerable children team. They also presented their orange Isikolo Project caps and all other items that could serve as mementos, such as the badges they wore, to their new friends. The local children handed a one trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill to my second son as a keepsake. (Because of hyperinflation, the bill was worth less than 1 yen.)
Finally, it was time for us to leave the school. All the children who had participated in the project said goodbye to their new friends and boarded their buses, reluctant to leave. The local children, in their turn, came up to the buses to wave goodbye to their new friends.
I saw the local children playing with their new equipment as our bus drove by the kindergarten on the edge of the school grounds. The equipment had been painted diligently by my children. Our bus turned right as I watched the children in their blue uniforms happily rocking back and forth on the swing, until finally we came upon a soccer pitch, the goalposts of which had been painted in a stark white.
“Do you think they will call us in the future?” my eldest son asked. “You couldn’t speak English to them even if they do call,” I answered. “I think you should study English first. Then, you come back to Zimbabwe when you grow up. How about that?” With a smile on his face, my first son said, “I guess so.” My second son next to him nodded. .
I wondered what my children gained through this volunteer work. Is it the thought that they can find happiness by giving something to others? Or is it a feeling of appreciation for the blessed environment that they live in in Japan?
Pondering this question, I looked out the bus window. Majestic African plains stretched out endlessly under the clear blue sky.
August 10, 2010
From a hotel in Zimbabwe
I wrote this column by the swimming pool at our hotel after the handover ceremony. The kids were having fun together in the pool. Grownups were mixing with each other over glasses of beer at a bar that offered a brilliant view of the sunset. I was admiring the sun as it melted into the ground, punching the keyboards of my computer alone. On an impulse, I joined my hands in prayer, watching the sun set into the horizon. I began punching the keys again after making sure that the last ray of sun had vanished over the horizon.