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A diploma for a rice cooker
16 July 2008, 05:45
by Eloisa Romero, JICA NGO Desk Local Coordinator

Tree planting at the Lagud Village Learning Inn in Barangay Uhaj, Banaue. Eloisa Romero from JICA (wearing black, on the left) and Jephonie Himiwat (right) attend. (JICA)Tree planting at the Lagud Village Learning Inn in Barangay Uhaj, Banaue. Eloisa Romero from JICA (wearing black, on the left) and Jephonie Himiwat (right) attend. (JICA)Japanese volunteers with JICA and IKGS in the Philippines, Kiyoko Okamoto (left) and Kozue Kamijo (right). (JICA)Japanese volunteers with JICA and IKGS in the Philippines, Kiyoko Okamoto (left) and Kozue Kamijo (right). (JICA)
Makati City, The Philippines: Jephonie Himmiwat is an Ifugao, one of the indigenous people in the northern Philippines. Her people and their land are inseparable, thus both are called by the same name, Ifugao.

The Ifugaos are known for building the rice terraces carved on the high slopes of the Cordilleras. So impressive are these rice terraces, created over 2,000 years ago, that they earned the distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. As the Ifugao’s source of life and art, the rice terraces have sustained and shaped them as a community. Hence, Jephonie’s life, like everyone else around her, revolves around work in the farm.

In Japan, two women enjoyed a very different upbringing. Twenty-three-year-old Kiyoko Okamoto spent four years as staff at the Mister Donut chain while she was studying international economics in the city of Fukuoka. Thirty-year-old Kozue Kamijo worked part-time in a restaurant while attending a business school in the Japanese capital.

Chance brought these two different cultures together, amidst the backdrop of picturesque Ifugao rice terraces and the problems of the people tending to it. For behind the splendour of this man-made wonder lies a more mundane truth – many of the villagers are extremely poor and their children need better and more easily accessible education.

Jephonie, for instance, must walk several kilometres from her modest home to the nearest schoolroom and must always balance time for studies with farm work to help her family. If she is lucky she will finish high school and "hopefully go to college". But she has nine brothers and sisters wishing the same thing. Her father died in his sleep a few years ago, leaving her mother to work in the farm and fend for the family alone.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Kiyoko Okamoto and Kozue Kamijo are helping her try to fulfil that dream. The women gave up the office jobs they had secured in Tokyo to do volunteer work in the Philippines through a Japanese non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Keeping Good Sannan (IKGS).

JICA teamed up with IKGS to help Jephonie and other young boys and girls from the same community build what they called the Lagud Village Learning Inn in their hometown in Barangay Uhaj, Banaue. The two Japanese volunteers have been working with the youngsters at the education centre. The Lagud Village Learning Inn is a cluster of traditional Ifugao houses, perched on the top of a hill with a panoramic view of the mountains and rice terraces that lie around it.

The local teenagers study about their own Ifugao culture, plant trees to protect the rice terraces and welcome visitors who stay at the centre and participate in local activities.

This is where the skills that the Japanese volunteers learned in food service in Japan come in handy, in the Philippine uplands where they teach the young boys and girls how to serve and entertain their visitors. They also helped design a website and brochure to promote the centre, which has begun to generate a modest amount of revenue from accommodation and food charges.

Gains from the project are earmarked to help send some community members to school. This year, the project sends three of them to college. Jephonie eagerly looks forward to her turn.

Yet the learning and teaching process is always a two-way street. "We learned from them, too," the two Japanese volunteers said, referring to some of life's important lessons that the local people have taught them along the way.

While they helped several children go for further education, the volunteers learned how to cook without a rice cooker, wash clothes without a washing machine, and generally how to live in a simple society, in an environment totally removed from their own.

"These young kids can do a lot of things on their own: they can get firewood, carry heavy things across the rice fields, they even helped in constructing Lagud - its walls and ceiling and tables! And for that, we respect them greatly," the two volunteers added.

The experience has helped them become more independent and confident women, geared for adversities back home in Japan or wherever their future in volunteer work will take them.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)
is an agency under the Government of Japan in charge of implementing Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA).
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