National

Japanese prosthesis maker finds her calling in Rwanda

by Eriko Yamawaki

As Rwandan swimmer Cesar Rwagasana strode into the Sydney stadium during the opening ceremony of last year’s Paralympic Games, he was closely followed by Mami Yoshida, the woman who helped him walk again.

The swimmer, who lost his left leg in the conflict after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, was fitted with a prosthetic limb by Yoshida’s nongovernmental organization Mulindi/Japan One Love Project.

Rwagasana is one of about 800,000 Rwandans, or 10 percent of the country’s population, maimed by land mines and the fighting initiated by the slaughter of minority Tutsis by Hutu extremists.

His new limb is the result of a journey Yoshida embarked on after she grew bored of corporate life in Japan. A native of Kanagawa Prefecture, the 38-year-old Yoshida became interested in Africa in 1989 when she came across a guidebook on studies there.

At that time Japan was enjoying its asset-inflated bubble economy and Yoshida was working as a temp in a Chigasaki metal plant in the prefecture. But she was tired of her dull working life and the book became her ticket out.

Yoshida applied for a Swahili-language course in Kenya; within six months she was on a plane to Nairobi.

Although she had planned to stay only five months, Yoshida extended her stay when she fell in love with neighbor Gatera Rudasingwa, 39.

Suffering paralysis in his right leg caused by botched medical treatment he received as a boy, Rudasingwa was abandoned by his parents, who regarded him as a burden, and raised at a child-care facility.

Rudasingwa dreamed of helping the physically handicapped in his native Rwanda, a dream also shared by Yoshida, who said, “I also wanted to become as strong as him.”

Yoshida returned to Japan and began training at an artificial limb factory in Yokohama. Five years later, Yoshida obtained an artificial limb maker’s license, before settling in Rwanda in 1997.

Settling in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Yoshida and Rudasingwa founded “One Love Land,” where Mulindi/Japan provides prostheses to Rwandans free of charge.

Using a hectare of land donated by the Rwandan government, the couple built an artificial leg plant. To match the skin color of locals, Yoshida covers artificial legs with chocolate-colored tights. There are always more than 100 people waiting for prostheses.

Late last year, they established a restaurant and expanded the facility’s lodging facilities. Rwagasana, who participated in the Sydney Paralympic Games, is learning how to make artificial legs and works in the restaurant by night.

In May, Yoshida and Rudasingwa were in Japan, conducting a nationwide series of lectures, including visits to Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, and Kyoto.

“Mothers who have lost both their spouses and their legs in the civil war are selling their artificial legs to get milk money for their children,” Yoshida told her listeners, speaking about the plight of Rwanda’s handicapped. “Contributing artificial legs alone is no good. We must find work for these people. Otherwise, our efforts aren’t complete.”

In June, the couple registered their marriage at Chigasaki City Hall.

“We want to have children and travel around the world to appeal for help,” Yoshida said. “Our lives are based in Rwanda because there is work to be done there.”