Christian school trains farming leaders

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

A Christian academy in the countryside is seeking to improve the quality of life in poor farming villages in Asia and Africa by giving new generations of community leaders the latest agricultural skills and knowledge.

Established in 1973, the Asian Rural Institute operates agricultural training programs in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, with the support of Christian organizations and other benefactors in and outside Japan. In September, the institute will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Over the decades, the academy has produced more than 1,200 alumni who served as agricultural community leaders in countries in those regions. This spring, the academy accepted 31 men and women as new students, including trainees from countries afflicted with famine, ethnic conflict and drought, including Myanmar, Nepal, Malawi, Zambia and Ecuador. Among them were three Japanese volunteers.

The freshmen, ranging in age from their 20s to 40s, will be taught the nuts and bolts of agriculture and leadership for nine months. On campus, English is the standard language.

The campus is dotted with farmland scenery, including a paddy field, a poultry house and fish farming pond, as well as a food processing line.

“We are always thinking of adapting to the issues that farming villages face,” said Yukiko Oyanagi, the teacher responsible for developing the curriculum. Last year, a biomass lesson was added at the urging of students.

The staff of the Asian Rural Institute, which is familiar with circumstances in developing countries, invariably stress the importance of achieving food security. They believe that eliminating the threat of hunger in rural areas will help to stave off war.

In addition, the institute also emphasizes raising awareness about the environment and female empowerment. It believes tackling such social issues will pave the way to a fair and peaceful society.

Among its staff and student body are a number of clergymen, including Kenichi Otsu, its president, and devout Christians. However, the institute keeps its door open to people of other faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, as well as atheists.

“Living side by side is not easy,” Otsu said, referring to the difficulty of understanding different religions and values. “I hope (students) will realize the importance of understanding and being understood by people who come from different backgrounds.”

The sentiment is based on his own experience in crossing the religious divide. Otsu has been engaged in a peace movement involving multi-faith collaboration and has been mingling with non-Christian religious leaders from around the world.

Itsuo Thomas Fujishima, a German of Japanese descent, said campus life at the institute gives students the opportunity to learn to overcome conflict with people who have different cultures and values. “I’m sure this experience will be useful for them when they return to their home countries.”