It was a day of fun and laughter at the Kabirizi school.
There was singing, dancing, play-acting and the occasional speech. Hundreds of primary and secondary students sat beneath the trees watching intently, alternately laughing delightedly or listening seriously to the dialogue of their fellow students as they produced various skits.
If it was a delightful break from normal school routine, the events carried a serious message to the children– the importance of safe water in their daily lives and how to use the precious commodity in such routine activities as washing their hands and brushing their teeth properly.
Yasuko Yoshiga, a graduate of Japan’s Ritsumeikan University, was a key player in the day’s events at the Kabirizi school in central Rwanda.
She is one of a series of Japanese volunteers (JOCV) and experts who are part of a strategy by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to help Rwanda develop a sustainable water supply service. The volunteers offer small-scale support to local communities.
Yoshiga had spent 18 months in the area not only working closely with school students and staff, but also cooperating with local communities to promote the benefits of a recently financed water system. The system provides some 28,000 local villagers with clean and regular water from a pumping station via several kilometers of underground piping feeding into both public water points and private connections.
The volunteer has become a local celebrity after working with a local musician to produce a popular song to promote the importance of water – telling the tale of a local boy, Kalisa, who brings misfortune to his family by bringing tainted water from a local lake and making everyone sick.
“Rwandan children, and grown ups, love songs,” said Yoshiga. “They can quickly understand the importance of water in their daily lives, through the medium of song.”
Felicite Musabyimana said the new water system and Yoshiga’s presence has had an immediate effect. “We must teach our children early, and they can then pass on the message to their parents,” she said. “Already the children have more time to study because they do not have to spend hours carrying water every day from a far off source. They are wearing cleaner clothes and everyone’s health is improving because the water is safe.”
Students enact a skit to stress the importance of water at the Kabizi primary and secondary school.
Volunteer Yasuko Yoshiga joins in a traditional Rwandan dance.
Washing Hands, Saving Lives
On another day Yoshiga was a member of a group of volunteers who visited the Nyakabuye primary school to promote hand washing, oral hygiene and rehydration procedures.
As at the school, there was an air of festivity as almost the entire student population of more than 900 6- to 15-year-olds participated in the class or watched spellbound through surrounding windows or from the dusty courtyard.
The volunteers used pictures, hand-crafted posters, a magic light box , a giant ”mouth” and soap, water and toothbrushes to emphasize their message: Washing your hands correctly, brushing your teeth regularly and using simple oral rehydration sachets when necessary can improve and even save your health.
Long-term, their aim was more ambitious. The visit to Nyakabuye coincided with Global Handwashing Day, which highlighted that as many as 3.5 million people die annually from diarrhea and pneumonia and African countries such as Rwanda are particularly vulnerable. Health officials estimate these deaths can be cut by between 25 percent and 50 percent through regular handwashing alone.
“Youth is the future of our country,” headmistress Olive Bazubagira said, and authorities wanted to “develop a whole new mindset in the entire population which will take handwashing and teeth brushing very seriously.”
A group of Japanese volunteers emphasize the importance of handwashing and teeth brushing to students at the Nyakabuye primary school.
A Japanese Mr. Fixit
Like much of the country, the Ngoma district is a beautiful area of rolling green hillsides studded with villages of local brick or mud and marshland drained for rice cultivation. On the higher elevations villagers grow coffee, maize and bananas.
JICA financed the drilling of local boreholes and handpumps to provide easily accessible and safe water.
Twenty-six-year-old Taku Saito is the first volunteer to work in the area, effectively acting as an all-round Mr. Fixit for all things connected with water.
He is known locally by the nickname “Gasana” and has become adept at fixing water pumps when they break down, training two local technicians, teaching local schoolchildren about hygiene and sanitation and developing a system to collect fees from villagers for their water use. Each family must pay 500 francs (US 75 cents) each quarter for access to cover the cost of the water itself and repairs.
At one pump, a local villager and his son explained the benefits. “So much time is saved,” the man said, “because we do not have to walk down to the swamp each time for water. And before, we always suffered from worms from the water. Now the worms have gone. Life is much better.”
Volunteer Taku Saito helps local villagers and students to improve the delivery of safe water and emphasize the importance of cleanliness.
Pumping clean water to local communities from a new Japanese financed pumping station
Collecting water the old-fashioned way. (JICA / Kenshiro Imamura / 2012)