Jambo: ‘hello’ in Swahili, help for nature at large

by Angela Jeffs

David Howenstein does not believe in being jinxed, or in giving up, which is why after two abortive attempts to meet we finally link up. He arrives, suitably attired, by a typical three-speed bike for morning tea in Seibu, which is also rather derring-do.

With all the mainstream political PR focus suddenly on Africa, it is good to meet someone who has been actively concerned in trying to help for over a decade. David organizes Jambo International Center, based in Takadanobaba, in western Tokyo, which raises money by various means to help sponsor projects in Africa.

“JIC started 10 years ago and is called Jambo because it means ‘hello’ in Swahili. The funding we raise in total is not a large amount by Japanese standards, but it goes a long way in the most impoverished parts of south Africa.”

David spent many years searching for a niche in which to be constructive.

His father was a dentist in St. Louis, but neither David nor any of his three brothers or sister wanted to go into teeth. “Instead we’re all teachers. Funny, that!”

He went to Iowa, to study horticulture therapy, but dropped out after six months. The organization Hand of Help proved more worthwhile, sending him as a volunteer to two rural parishes.

“Next I was relocated to San Francisco, to work with the Hispanic community. This was when I realized I loved working with people from other cultures.”

He first came to Japan in 1983, working at the YMCA in Nagasaki for two years. “I’d met a Japanese guy from Nagasaki at the Peace Center in Iowa; his parents took care of me. Working with hibakusha (survivors of the A-bomb attack), they’d sent their son to the U.S. to do peace studies. He ended up marrying an Austrian woman and taking her citizenship.”

A world tour in the mid-1980s took David from sussing out Gandhian ashrams to European social services.

Accepted by the Peace Corps, but having to wait for months for an assignment in Kenya, he returned for a second fix in Japan and began teaching and working as a rewriter for patent law firms. And so, he jokes, “I got stuck here.”

Thinking to start some project of his own, he realized there was no better focus than Africa and the environment. So, in 1994, he sent letters to organizations on the African continent, asking how to best help. “Going to east and south Africa for five months, I found so many groups active that it seemed better to raise funds from here.”

Today, JIC raises funds in two ways: through twice-monthly parties, and hiking programs.

“I organize one party a month at my office-home and we spread onto the rooftop garden. It’s a social gathering but I always speak for a short time on aspects of Jambo’s work. The other party is a far larger affair, staged in the Nishi-Shinjuku Hotel, and operated by someone who’s a Jambo supporter.”

Some of the money raised goes to help support Abalimi Bezekhaya, which seeks to develop but improve the environment of an area near Cape Town reduced to desert by enforced resettlement under apartheid. Another slice of the action goes to northeast South Africa, where local people run a safari park in the Mpumalanga area. “Proceeds go directly to them, providing jobs and giving them good reason to protect the local environment.”

Regarding continued support for the Campfire Association in Zimbabwe, David pulls a face. “The place is too much of a mess right now.” But he is enthusiastic about the prospects of a tree nursery in Malawi. “We only send 25,000 yen a month but it makes a difference.”

David also organizes Kanto-based inland and coastal hiking trips twice a month. “These are social but, for my part, about helping people re-connect with nature.” Technology, he adds, is separating people from nature more and more. For example, cell phones are useful, but only as another tool. In Japan, people are allowing them to rule their lives; they talk indirectly to one another more and more, and look out proactively at the world less and less.

He and Jambo supporters regularly assist other grassroots groups — Japan Environmental Network, for example — with environmental cleanup projects. “Nagahana on Miura-hanto has no garbage cans. The idea is for visitors take their garbage home, but instead, they too often just leave it on the beach.” Arakawa Clean Aid also benefits: “The river is filthy with solid waste — plastics, cans, bikes, fridges, air cons, even old motorbikes.”

JIC members are clearing areas around Tama Zoo of an invasive bamboo grass, and trying to re-introduce indigenous species of plant life. Jambo is also active in Midori Zukuri Forum, a tree replanting and plant analysis project working in Okutama.

In the volunteer class that David teaches at Den’en-Chofu Gakuen University in Shinyurigaoka, there were two older Japanese women who were “really into it.” Taking them on field trips to places like Okutama and Miura has opened their eyes. One woman told him, astonished by the exceptional natural beauty of the upper Tama River, “David, I never knew there were such places in Japan.”

“For me,” he says, “that said it all.”