When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar just over a year ago on May 2, Naomi Kato was in Japan, wishing she wasn’t. As life ended for some 140,000 people and changed drastically for countless others, the Yokohama native found herself on the brink of a far-less tumultuous change, in between jobs and about to join the relief and development organization World Vision, one of the few groups immediately allowed in to Myanmar to help.
Ten days later, Kato’s frustration was heightened when Sichuan, China , was rocked by an earthquake that claimed the lives of 68,000 people.
The now-34-year-old Kato was aching to help in whatever way she could. “I had expected to have joined World Vision in May,” she explains, “but unfinished work delayed things and there I was, itching to go, thinking ‘if only I had started already,’ and thinking of all the work that needed to be done.”
Having worked as a graduate student in China, Kato admits her thoughts were more on the quake victims, not on the situation in Myanmar, but when she finally was able to join World Vision in June, she found herself assigned to Myanmar as the project program officer.
By July of 2008, Kato was based at the World Vision national office in the former Myanmar capital of Yangon. There she would work for the past year as the organization’s sole representative from Japan overseeing a project to rebuild seven schools in Bogale, an area in the very southernmost part of the country and one of the worst-hit by the cyclone. It was an area, Kato says, “where the water was 120 to 130 cm deep and the winds blew at cyclone strength for 10 hours.”
“There were some 6,000-7,000 schools and 4,000 of them were damaged by the storm. About 1,500 of them were totally destroyed,” Kato explains. Following a request and guidelines by the Myanmar government, World Vision agreed to help restore schools. The group, an integral part of whose work is to create opportunities for children and their families, set about to improve upon the school situation and build structures that would better last a severe storm as well as weather the more common occurrence of flooding.
In Yangon, Kato reports from early morning to the office, where she replies to e-mails from the work site and Japan, sees to the smooth running of construction, manages the project finances and troubleshoots any number of problems that may arise.
She travels to the building site once every two weeks — a 6-hour journey by car to cover a flight distance of only about 100 km. Each trip requires travel permits by the government, permits that usually take five days to obtain. Kato also makes periodic trips back to Japan.
For Kato, though her initial thoughts had been of China, her work in Myanmar seems almost fated. Kato studied architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo, during which time she also worked as a volunteer in Kobe after the 1995 quake. As a graduate student, she spent time in Yunnan Province researching the basic structural style in dwellings of the Dai-Lu hill-tribe people.
After graduating, Kato was employed by a construction consulting company, one that was involved, among other things, with ODA work. Much of the company’s work involved building water infrastructure and in general dealing with the problem of “too much water,” Kato explains. It was experience that was to stand her well in Myanmar.
As a student, Kato had always been fascinated with Asia. She backpacked extensively through Asia, often for a month at a time.
“Initially, I thought I would travel to a poverty-stricken country and feel somehow above them,” she admits. “But, when I actually went there, I was instead struck by how rich in spirit the people actually were. The people may not know what the next day would bring but they lived each day happily. I came to realize that a lack of money did not equate to being poor.”
During her travels, Kato had little contact with Myanmar. She entered the country once from China in 1999 and once in 1997 from Thailand, and both times did notice a considerably lower level of living standard in Myanmar.
Though her travels were often spurred by a mere desire for personal freedom or small challenges such as “being able to travel alone,” Kato was acquiring much greater and more valuable life experience. One particular time she remembers being made embarrassingly aware of just how lacking she still was, despite having grown up in a country that “had everything.” It was during a bus ride in China, with her as the only foreigner. The ride was to have taken 20 hours but turned into a 48-hour ordeal when a landslide blocked the road. “I was at a loss, didn’t know how to do anything, where to get food or anything, but the little local girl sitting next to me took it all in stride and took care of me as well,” Kato remembers. “I later asked her how old she was and learned she was 10 years younger than me,” which made the girl a mere 11 years old at the time.
Wherever Kato traveled, she found herself drawn to the workings of communities and their traditions. Born in Yokohama, but raised in Fukushima Prefecture, Kato remembers her childhood as one deeply enriched by the human bonds formed in a close-knit community. “My town was the kind where every household had a grandmother in it and naughty children would be scolded freely by people other than their own parents.” Kato’s own family was made up of only her parents, older sister and older brother, but she remembers warmly the many times spent gathered together around the kotatsu.
During her work in developing countries, Kato became aware of her own feeling of dissatisfaction, a need for something more. Involved in ODA projects, the people she worked with were mostly from the governments. “It was a top-down way of dealing with disasters and problems and I felt I wanted to deal with them more from the bottom up,” Kato says.
Though she enjoyed her work, she wanted more feedback from the community. “It was possible to make a difference to people in need, but I thought it would be great to work closely with the community face to face through an NGO. That way I could better know people’s exact needs, real situation and the way I could help more effectively.”
When Kato saw an ad by World Vision looking for new people, she applied. “I was a Christian and had seen the donation boxes in church from when I was in junior high school,” Kato says. A somewhat roundabout route had equipped Kato well with what was needed to help in Myanmar.
Next week, construction on the schools is expected to be completed and the end of the month will see Kato back in Japan and ready to take on a new project. “Looking back on the year spent in Myanmar, she says, “I learned that there is much that can only be done from the inside and there are things that I could do because I was a foreigner and things that I couldn’t do because I was foreigner.
“The Myanmar people opened their hearts to me and I to them and Myanmar now feels very close,” the soft-spoken Kato says. “Still, I feel there is so much more I have to learn. Working with people from many different countries in Myanmar, I realize how much more I have to grow.”