Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meet the participants

Every morning, ARI comes together after breakfast for morning gathering, which is a chance for one of the community members (participants, staff, volunteers) to share something about his- or herself. It's a time to reflect about our time here at ARI and about what we want to do after ARI. This morning, one of the participants spoke about the political situation in his country. First, he asked everyone to put away their digital cameras (most participants record the morning gatherings), because he was afraid that someone would post the video online and that his government would find it. "If they find it, I go to heaven too soon," he joked. "I don't want to go to heaven, I want to do development." He then talked about growing up in a country without an effective government. He talked about political turmoil, about fleeing his village with his family as a child due to government persecution, about demonstrating as a student, about hiding and fighting in the jungle as a rebel. He said that, after years of armed resistance, he decided to turn to development work. As he described it, both seek to build community in a country without an independent civil society, but development work is more effective because the government doesn't try to kill development workers.

I had read in the papers about the political situation in this participant's country, but hearing about day-to-day life under a violent, despotic government from an actual person was shocking. This man will return to his country in three weeks and continue his work with an NGO - his courage amazes me. He knows that when he enters his country, his USB drives will be wiped, his email will again be subject to surveillance, his organization will be monitored by the government. "Sometimes I still want to fight," he told me. I asked if he thought development work is more effective than fighting. "Yes," he replied, "because then no one dies."

The participants here at ARI are amazing, inspiring people. They left their countries nine months ago to participate in an intensive community development training project in rural Japan. Most of them had never left their countries before - leaving their families and communities required a huge leap of faith. All of them have a deep commitment to service in their communities, whether that service be through agricultural or development work, through teaching, or through religious leadership. The man I wrote about above works for an NGO involved in providing rural communities with access to education. Others work with micro-financing operations, with liaison offices connecting farmers with the government, with public schools, with churches and individual parishes.

Pikolo from Kenya

Shelia from Myanmar

Maiko from Japan and Marie from the Philippines

Kingsley from Ghana and Ruth from Myanmar at the Halloween party

The participants will return to their countries in just two weeks! After two months in ARI, I feel like I'm just starting to know these people - I wish they could stay in Japan a little longer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Welcome to the farm

I thought I would take advantage of the gorgeous fall weather to take some pictures of the ARI farm. The ARI campus is not just the farm (the main office, kitchen, chapel, and dorms are also on campus), but the farm is the focus of my life here as a farm volunteer.

Crops and veggies: ARI has fields both on ARI campus and around the town of Nasushiobara. We grow over twenty different types of crops, ranging from rice and wheat to sweet potatoes and broccoli to persimmons and kiwi. Our harvest goes to feed the ARI community (we supplied an estimated $150,000 in food to the ARI kitchen last year!) and to local consumers (so the farm section generates income for ARI). For the participants, the farm functions as their outdoor classroom - they have morning and evening farm work, and they also manage their own plots of land. But since the participants also have classroom work and cannot always be on the farm, volunteers like me provide the extra hands needed to keep the farm running. During my two months at ARI, I've sown Chinese cabbage and spinach, harvested tomatoes and carrots, dug storage trenches for taro, cleared fields, threshed soybeans... it's an ever-changing job!

Soy beans in the greenhouse, post threshing

A participant field, the "Garden of Rejoice"

A row of broccoli in the field

The vegetable harvest arranged for the kitchen

Livestock: ARI also raises chickens, ducks, fish, cows, and pigs. We have 900 chickens, around 50 ducks, two ponds of carp, and around 30 pigs. ARI butchers our own chickens and ducks, but the pigs are sent out to the local slaughter house due to government regulations (which suits me - I'd rather not have to slaughter a 400 pound pig!). Just like with the crops and veggies, participants are responsible for managing portions of the livestock section as part of their training. Volunteers rotate sections every month - this month, I'm in Fish and Duck, which means that I feed the ducks and the fish every morning and evening with one of the participants.

The view down to the duck pen from my bedroom window

One of the pigpens

Piglets! Just over 2 months old.

The entrance to the fish pond area

A ukokkei chicken, a special Japanese breed of chicken

So welcome to the farm!

Playing catch-up

First, apologies for my long absence! November was a very busy month at ARI - the participants left for a tour of western Japan, leaving the staff and volunteers with a little extra work around campus. So now you get several backlogged blogs at once!

I went to Tokyo last weekend to attend a missionary conference in celebration of 150 years of Protestantism in Japan. My first trip to the big city! We started the weekend with a general meeting of the Protestant Church in Japan (the Anglican Church in Japan is actually not included in this grouping of Protestant denominations, but I got to attend the meeting anyway). The meeting, oddly enough, took place in a church in the middle of Shibuya, the equivalent of Times Square in New York City - across from the Apple store, between the Disney Store and the Gap! Although the entire meeting was in Japanese, I still enjoyed the service and learning a little about the history and the activities of Protestants in Japan. I also got to meet a lovely Japanese organist, who, after I told her that I used to play the organ, played my favorite Bach hymn for me! It made me miss playing for services at St. Mary's, my home parish in Virginia.

I also got to do a little sightseeing while in Tokyo - Shibuya, Ginza, Asakusa. Each section of Tokyo that I visited was dramatically different from the last. I'm looking forward to visiting again soon and exploring more! (Although, after the weekend, I was definitely glad to get out of the noise of the city and back to quieter Tochigi prefecture...)

Asakusa shrine

Me and Heejean, a Korean volunteer, in Asakusa

A standard Tokyo scene - a traditional Kabuki theater next to skyscrapers and construction projects

Otherwise, it's pretty much life as usual at ARI. During the participants' trip to western Japan, I got a little taste of what ARI will be like after this year's participants return to their countries in December - quieter, certainly, but also cozier in some ways, as the smaller numbers encourage people to talk more and to share more. I think that by the time the next class of participants arrive in April 2010, I'll know the Japanese staff and the other volunteers much better than I do now.

I hope everyone had a very happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 5, 2009


ARI, as I wrote about in my first post, is a training center for rural leaders, a type of agricultural school for those who work with or who advocate for farmers in their home communities. Most of the participants are not actually farmers, but NGO workers in the field of agriculture or community development. They're interested in learning about different agricultural techniques can that benefit their home communities - better ways of irrigating rice, of raising livestock, of processing crops. So the ARI curriculum involves work with vegetable crops (rice, wheat, tomatoes, soy beans, Japanese pumpkin, komatsuna...) and with livestock (chickens, ducks, fish, cows, and pigs).

After a month of working with the veggies, I got to help with the chickens for the first time this week. ARI has over 900 chickens. Participants help incubate and hatch the eggs, raise the chickens, and then butcher the birds for the ARI kitchen. I started with the end of the cycle, as I was asked to help butcher one pen of chickens with some of the other volunteers. (Vegetarian friends and family, please forgive me!) We butchered 44 chickens within two hours - first cutting their windpipes, then plucking them, then disemboweling them and preparing them for the kitchen. I was exhausted by the end, both physically and mentally, but it was a good learning experience. I now have a greater appreciation for every piece of chicken I eat. And a greater understanding of chicken anatomy!

Later in the week, I spent time with some live chickens, collecting eggs and preparing feed and cleaning out the pens. At first, I didn't really enjoy working in the chicken house. Chickens are not very endearing animals. In fact, they remind me of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, except without the smarts - just try grabbing an egg from under an angry hen, you'll get quite the glare. Then Jackson, a teaching assistant and ARI graduate from Myanmar, started talking about why ARI raises chickens, and I gained a new appreciation for the little dinosaurs.

First, many of the participants have some experience raising chickens, since the birds are a relatively easy source of revenue. But the participants (or their communities) often rely on imported goods to raise their chickens, which makes them dependent on outside resources - so ARI tries to teach the participants how to utilize local resources to make their communities more self-sufficient when it comes to raising chickens. For example, many participants' home communities rely on concentrated feed, which must be imported and is therefore very expensive. So ARI introduces the participants to fermented feed, which is simply fermented food garbage (i.e. compost) from the ARI kitchen - it works just as well as concentrated feed and costs nothing. In addition to basic feed, chickens also need nutritional supplements to help harden their egg shells. Traditionally, many farmers use crushed oyster shells or some other type of imported shell, but ARI uses our own crushed egg shells, collected from the kitchen, as a cost-free alternative. Many of the participants' home communities also buy their chicks rather than incubating eggs from their existing flocks. ARI teaches the participants how to incubate eggs (using both electric and non-electric heaters) in order to reduce costs and resource self-sufficiency. Jackson told me that before coming to ARI, he had bought all his chicks. After graduating from ARI, he was able to hatch his own chicks, and he wrote an article teaching other farmers within his community how to do the same. So there's a lot to learn from these feisty birds (although I still prefer working with the veggies).

In other and totally unrelated news, I got to go hiking! Last weekend, I went to Shiobara with some of the other volunteers to see the beautiful kouyou (changing leaves). Shiobara offered some interesting insights into Japanese culture. First, the Japanese are huge nature enthusiasts - it seemed like half of Tokyo had joined us on this pilgrimage into the mountains. But in spite of this, or perhaps because of this, the nature was not very far removed from all the trappings of modern life. The highways continue almost to the very peaks of the mountains, and all the hiking trails were only a stone's throw from the traffic and restaurants and souvenir shops. Yet somehow, it was still a beautiful place and a very peaceful experience. As the German volunteer on the trip said, "The Japanese have a wonderful ability to block out the ugly things and only see the beautiful" - I guess I was able to enter into that spirit and just enjoy the beauty of the trail, which wound through autumn kouyou and tall cedars, past waterfalls and forest onsen (natural hot springs). The day ended with some delicious soba and my first onsen experience (so relaxing!). All in all, a wonderful day of natural and cultural adventures.

That's the news from Lake Woebegone! Thanks to everyone for all the recent letters and emails - it's so nice to know that people are reading and to hear what's going on back home. I'm thinking of you all...