In 1998, Naoyuki Kawahara, who desperately wanted to work abroad, accepted a one-year placement in Tanzania. It was the only overseas option on offer for his medical course at Kyushu University. It was intended to be a year for him to experience, for the first time, a country other than Japan. Instead, he says he “fell in love with Tanzania” and later nearby Sudan.
Seeing the Sudanese people suffer due to civil war and disease, Kawahara wanted to find a way to stay and help them, while forging links between the country and his native Japan.
Today, Kitakyushu-born Dr. Kawahara, 52, is the founder and chairman of the Japanese non-profit organization Rocinantes, which supports medical care in Sudan. Though in operation for more than 10 years, the charity had a rocky start.
After finishing his university placement, Kawahara took the role of medical attache to the Japanese embassy, first in Tanzania and then in Sudan. When not in his role treating Japanese residents of Sudan, he traveled the country with UNICEF and the World Health Organization and witnessed the scale of suffering from treatable illnesses and diseases.
“I came in contact with the same patients in 2002, 2003 and 2004 but was unable to help them (because of my official role) so, in 2005, I decided to resign.” he explains. “My friends thought I was crazy, because it would mean I would have no income at all, but there was no big NPO in Japan, so I wanted to create an NPO like Medecins Sans Frontieres or Save the Children.”
Kawahara returned to Japan with his family to raise money but, being unemployed among people who didn’t know his background, he found fundraising in Tokyo impossible. He focused instead on Kitakyushu, where his friends, relatives and former high school rugby teammates were eager to give his project financial support.
He set up Rocinantes, named after Don Quixote’s horse, stocked up on Japanese medical supplies and departed for Sudan. But his dream was not without sacrifice; his wife and their children, aged 12, 10 and 3, decided not to return and settled in Kitakyushu.
In Rocinantes’ first three or four years, Kawahara spent 80 to 90 percent of his time living in Sudan, traveling from village to village as a doctor. Now, he manages Rocinantes’ four main projects: a mobile medical clinic, water station, nutrition program and cultural exchange program. The team continues to expand, with four staff in Kitakyushu, two in Tokyo, three working remotely, and 10 (six Sudanese and four Japanese) in Sudan.
As Japan is the NPO’s base, from where Kawahara fundraises while recruiting doctors and nurses to work in Sudan, he spends around 40 percent of his time in Japan and the rest in Sudan. But Sudan, he says, is still his home.
“I love the atmosphere, the blue sky and blue sea. And people are very friendly,” he says. “I was brought up in Japan: it’s almost the same as being in Europe and America, but in Africa there is another way of life. I’m very interested in that life.”
Kawahara admits that as he was unfamiliar with Islamic culture when he first arrived in the country, some things, such as abstaining from beer, have taken a little getting used to. But, almost 20 years on, he now uses Islamic phrases such as “Bismillah” (“In the name of God”) before driving or eating, and they not only come to him naturally, but he likes to use them.
Living in and understanding Islamic culture also helps him work more easily with Sudanese people. “The Sudanese people understand my ways and advise me on Sudanese ways. I respect the Sudanese and Islamic culture and now we are making our own style (of working),” he explains.
Nurturing such cultural understanding was also the inspiration behind Rocinantes’ cultural exchange project. In 2011, 11 children from Sudan and 11 children from newly independent South Sudan visited Japan. First they were taken to Kiyozmizu Temple in Kyoto, then Tohoku and finally Nagasaki.
“I have to show Islamic culture to Japanese people and the world because there are some troubles between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world,” he says. “The Tohoku area was affected by a disaster caused by nature; Sudan was affected by a disaster caused by humans. But in both places people are suffering, so the Tohoku and Sudanese people can understand and take care of each other and not think only about their own situation.”
Following the exchange, a Sudanese participant attended high school in Kitakyushu, while two others are now studying at a Ugandan university to work for Rocinantes in the future.
Meanwhile, a Japanese participant sang at the 2014 opening ceremony of the University of Khartoum’s Japanese room. The special facility, a space for students to study in, was another of Kawahara’s ideas to promote understanding between Japan and Sudan. He arranged for a craftsman to travel from Kyoto to make the tatami matting and shoji doors and for the chief of Kiyomizu Temple to write a calligraphy piece to adorn the wall.
Kawahara hopes one day to invite more Japanese students to Sudan but is currently focusing on building a well and water supply facility by the end of 2018 that will help eradicate water-borne diseases. The project requires ¥10 million, and Kiyomizu Temple has offered to provide half, with the rest being fundraised this month.
“In the beginning, the Sudanese people maybe thought I was just some strange guy. Now they respect me, and I respect them,” Kawahara says. Through the well and Rocinantes’ nutrition and agricultural initiatives, he hopes to make the Sudanese people’s lives more sustainable. “It’s not good just to give the fish,” he continues. “We have to teach how to catch the fish.”
Rocinantes, Kawahara says, can also benefit Japan. As he explores using local health volunteers and smartphones to offer telemedicine to far-flung parts of Sudan, he believes his work can provide lessons for medical providers on islands and in other remote areas across Japan.
Ultimately, though, his goal is to communicate information about Sudanese and Islamic culture to Japan, so people can better understand the country that has welcomed him with open arms.
For more information on Rocinantes, visit www.rocinantes.org
Name: Naoyuki Kawahara
Profession: Founder and chairman of NPO Rocinantes
Key moments in career:
1998 — Leaves Japan for Tanzania
2002 — Moves to Sudan as medical attache
2005 — Resigns from the Embassy of Japan in Sudan and sets up Rocinantes
2011 — Takes students from Sudan in a cultural exchange project to Kiyomizu Temple, Tohoku and Nagasaki
2017 — Sets up Rocinantes’ Tokyo branch; decides to also start helping other African nations
Life philosophy: “One for all; all for one.”