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Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers—50th Anniversary

A Student’s Long-Awaited Reunion

The bonds built through the classroom between a JOCV math teacher in her twenties and her students at a boarding school in Kenya remain unbroken even after thirty-five years.

“If I had not met her, I would not be where I am today,” declares Kenya’s Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) managing director, Dr. Alfred Serem, part of the Kenya representative group at the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Yokohama in 2013.

He is speaking of Michiko Tsuyuki, who taught mathematics at Kapsabet Boys High School in Kenya as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) member from 1978 to 1980. Thanks to the bonds created by the JOCV’s consistent efforts to promote “tangible cooperation with a human face,” the two of them met again in 2012, after thirty-two years apart.
“Since I was a young child I had always wanted to visit Africa one day,” recalls Tsuyuki. “But without some kind of special skills or abilities I wouldn’t have been able to stay in Africa for a long period of time. So I decided to join the JOCV and offer what I could, which was to be a teacher of science and mathematics.”

Tsuyuki had strong feelings toward Africa, but says that she knew nothing about the lifestyle in the region. “For the first month in Kenya we members were put in a homestay with a local family, and afterward were assigned to our respective posts. During this homestay period, we came to understand the real lifestyles of the Kenyan people. The students at the Kapsabet boarding school didn’t know that I had been in a homestay, but I believe they could sense that I genuinely understood them, so even without using words I was able to communicate to them that I was approachable.”

Like Alfred Serem, many of the students Tsuyuki taught have gone on to become talented individuals active on the front lines of their respective fields. “The fact that she taught us the Japanese virtues of diligence, courtesy and modesty—and encouraged us to work hard and continue to have hope—helped us to improve our academic skills,” says Serem, who does not hesitate to sing her praises.

“My generation was taught by our parents to be trustworthy, honest and hard-working, and so I feel that I must have naturally been saying that to my students as well,” Tsuyuki explains. “These children, with their adaptable spirits, were filled with the hope that they would succeed, and they honestly and straightforwardly accepted the things I said. At the dormitories, every night from seven to nine was private study time. When I tried to give them supplementary lessons or tests, though, instead of being annoyed, they would loudly and joyfully welcome me. When I met Alfred again, he told me that he and the others enjoyed my classes, but being able to put all of my energies into teaching such enthusiastic students was a truly meaningful experience for myself as well.”

Tsuyuki returned to Japan two years later. Having acutely sensed the importance of education from being in Africa, and the fact that she herself lacked insight into Japanese culture, she took lessons in calligraphy and wearing kimono while continuing to work as a teacher.
Tsuyuki’s experience in Kenya affected her life afterward as well. And Serem, having become the HCDA’s managing director, finally saw the fruits of his passionate efforts rewarded in 2012, as Tsuyuki and her Kenyan students were reunited.

“Stirred by our reunion, I helped pay the tuition fees for one of the students at the high school where Dr. Serem serves as chairman,” Tsuyuki says. “And there was a young man I met during that time in Kenya who is currently studying abroad at a Japanese university, so I am providing support to ensure that the young man and his friend enjoy a smooth transition to life in Japan. From now on, I want to be able to do what I can to help Kenyans who come to Japan to love this country.”

Tsuyuki adds: “To truly hope for someone’s happiness from the bottom of your heart is the kind of support that we Japanese people can provide. That is what I felt through my experiences in Kenya.” That belief has remained unchanged even after decades, and will continue to be the kind of warm support that Japan can deliver.

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