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Bringing the classrooms to the children

A teaching program for Papua New Guinea; a learning experience for Japan

by Everett Kennedy Brown

Several hundred Japanese children sit enchanted as Justin Somi mimics a fluttering butterfly. Somi, a celebrated mime artist and musician, belongs to the Zia tribe that live along the Waria River Valley in Papua New Guinea. For two weeks this spring, he and five other Zia tribesmen visited schools in Niigata Prefecture, where they took their captivated audiences on imaginary journeys through the jungles of PNG with their native songs, drama and dance.

The event was the brainchild of two Niigata-based assistant language teachers: American Carlo Capua and Canadian Doug Brittain. They established the Niigata Papua New Guinea Association in September 2001 as a nongovernmental organization to support interpersonal and cultural exchange between PNG and Japan.

For the two JETs, this cross-cultural journey began in the Waria Valley in March 2001. With 17 other JETs from Niigata Prefecture, they participated in a Habitat For Humanity program to build houses for needy families. On a visit to the local school, Capua and Brittain were shocked.

“Except for a blackboard, the classrooms were all but empty,” Brittain says. “I instinctively wanted to cover the walls with charts and posters and make a more educational environment.”

As is the case in much of the world, basic education is a luxury in rural PNG. In the Waria Valley, it costs 2,000 yen a year for a child’s school tuition and 25 percent of the children’s families simply can’t afford it. School supplies are lacking, and since many villages are a long journey by banana boat from the nearest town, there is little incentive for trained teachers to travel the distance.

Capua and Brittain believed they could make a difference. “In our hut one night, we stayed up till late talking,” Capua says. “We did the math and realized that the average Japanese student has enough pencils to last an entire Waria Valley class for six months. Through the JET network, we thought we could easily collect enough unused school supplies to help these kids.”

The two JETs returned to Niigata with stunning photographs and stories of their experiences in PNG. In their classrooms, they told their students about life in the Waria Valley and the difficulties local children have in getting a basic education. “We asked our students how they could help,” Brittain says. “The response was overwhelming.”

Between April and September 2001, with the support of JETs around Japan, Capua and Brittain collected over 10,000 classroom items. They also collected more than 300,000 yen, much of which was in 5 yen coins donated through the auspices of Children Without Borders, an NGO offshoot of Doctors Without Borders.

“This money gave us the momentum to create student scholarships and to consider building teachers’ housing, which could solve the teacher shortage problem,” Capua explains.

For Capua and Brittain, the project did not stop there. They realized that the success of any NGO requires a two-way exchange.

“With the need for internationalization here in Japan, we saw the opportunity for cultural exchange between people in Japan and PNG,” Capua explains. “Not just through textbooks or on TV, but the real thing.”

Capua had been corresponding by e-mail with Maine Winny, a multimedia artist with the Village Development Trust, an NGO working to develop sustainability in the Waria Valley. Winny had accompanied Carlo and Brittain on their trip to the local villages and offered his support to organize a Japan tour for a Zia musical group. It would be replete with traditional instruments, costumes and dancers — and children in Niigata would be able to participate in the performance.

In order to get support for the PNG concert tour, Capua developed promotional kits for embassies, local citizens’ groups and the media. Their plan included taking a group of people from Niigata to the Waria Valley to deliver school supplies, build two houses and introduce Japanese culture, followed by a two-week tour of Niigata by the Bui Generation music group.

The response was encouraging. Local citizens’ groups donated the funds necessary to hold concerts in Niigata, and Air Niugini and Chuetsu Kotsu, a Niigata-based transport company, helped with tickets and the conveyance of 500 kg of school supplies to the Waria Valley. When the group of 15 JETs and Japanese nationals from Niigata arrived in Port Moresby, the capital, in April this year, a breakfast reception was held for them at U.S. Ambassador Susan Jacobs’ residence, followed by a meeting with Japanese Ambassador Tatsuo Tanaka.

“It was an emotional experience being back in the Waria Valley and seeing all the bright smiles again,” recalls Brittain. “As we walked up the muddy slope from the river, the children were calling out our names. In the classrooms, we found the donated school supplies and drawings by our Niigata students. It had worked!”

In late May, the Bui Generation musical group arrived in Niigata amid World Cup fanfare. In two weeks, they held seven school performances for more than 1,700 children and four benefit concerts, with proceeds totaling over 1 million yen.

“This is just the beginning,” says Capua, who after finishing his JET contract this July will expand the network of the Niigata PNG Association and develop new exchange projects between Japan and other countries. Plans are already underway for Brittain to take a group of Japanese teachers from Sado Island to PNG this winter, and Capua intends to take students to volunteer in the Waria Valley next spring.

“There is a strong need for such cultural exchanges as we’ve achieved here in Niigata,” Capua says. “Our next step is to establish an NGO network in Niigata to support projects like this and continue to empower our children.”