As an orphan, living on the streets of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, John Nakaswa never imagined he might one day travel to Japan.
So when Ashinaga, a Japanese foundation dedicated to providing educational and emotional support to orphans, offered to send him to Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, he couldn’t believe it.
“You’ve never dreamed of even taking a plane, and suddenly these people come out of nowhere and say, ‘We’re taking you to Japan. We’re taking you to study at a prestigious university.’ ”
Now 23, Nakaswa sits in a darkened auditorium in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, watching as a new generation of Ugandan children, hoping to one day be just like him, step onto a lighted stage with a group of young people from Japan and the United States.
With a burst of impassioned drumming and singing, the beat of “taiko” drums mixes with an African rhythm in what might at first be mistaken for a run of the mill cultural exchange performance.
But as the drumming stops, a young Japanese woman takes the stage and says, “I lost my mother to the (March 11, 2011) disaster. When I realized she was never coming home, it tore a hole in my heart. Since that day, I know the real meaning of sadness.”
One by one, children from Japan and Uganda tell their stories of loss. The children are bonding over not just culture, but also the profound pain of losing a parent.
While the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region forever changed the lives of the Japanese children on stage, it was the AIDS epidemic that swept across Uganda in the early 1990s that tore apart many of the Ugandan children’s families.
Ashinaga organized the performances of the show, called “At Home in the World,” in mid-March in Sendai and Tokyo in part to raise awareness of the obstacles parentless children face in obtaining higher education, but more importantly, to help the participants heal through the experience of meeting others who share the trauma of losing a parent.
Performing the show, which at moments feels like a live action documentary, can be “very, very emotional and dark, because the kids are sharing their feelings,” said John Caird, a Tony Award-winning British director tapped by Ashinaga to direct the performance.
“But they’ve gotten to the point now where they’re saying, ‘It hurts me to talk about it, but feels so good to have expressed it. Sharing has helped me and made me grow,’ ” he said.
While sharing their stories of loss with an auditorium full of strangers may be difficult, the children are glad to do it if it means raising awareness of the work Ashinaga has done to help them and other orphans in Japan and abroad.
“Even though we all lost parents under different circumstances, we have the same feelings of gratitude. We’re happy every day to be alive,” said Maria Kusaka, 18, who lost her father to the tsunami in Tohoku.
For former Ashinaga students, being part of the group is like “having a big family, but with everyone from a different place,” said Ritah Nabukenya, 27, who passed the entrance exam for Waseda University in 2005 and became the first international student to receive a college scholarship from the charity.
Ashinaga, which means “long legs” in Japanese, was named after the novel “Daddy Long Legs,” Jean Webster’s novel about a young woman who, after losing her parents, receives a college education through the largesse of an anonymous benefactor.
The performance, which incorporates scenes from Webster’s book, is the distinctive vision of the charity’s president, Yoshiomi Tamai, 79, who recruited Caird to head the show after seeing his musical adaptation of “Daddy Long Legs” in a London theater.
Tamai also convinced Vassar College, the New York-based alma mater of Webster, to participate by sending students to join the performance and dispatching its choral director to Uganda to instruct the show’s performers in Western vocal methods.
Like the orphaned children, Tamai, too, had a tragic past. As a young man, he lost his mother to injuries sustained after she was hit by a car while walking in front of the family home.
After his mother passed away, Tamai and a colleague set up a fund in 1967 to support children orphaned by traffic accidents. The organization later changed its name to Ashinaga and expanded its educational support to parentless children around the world, providing about ¥33.5 billion in scholarships to more than 35,000 orphans.
Ashinaga opened a facility in Uganda in 2003 in response to the AIDS epidemic, which left a generation of children without one or both parents.
The program has been a resounding success. According to Ashinaga representatives, there are more than 500 children on the waiting list to enter the Ugandan school, which can only accommodate 60. More than 300 students have passed through the program since 2007, according to the foundation.
Ashinaga also runs facilities in Tokyo and Kobe, the site of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, and is building three new centers in the Tohoku region to provide support to children and families affected by the 2011 disaster.
And that, Tamai says, is just the beginning. “It’s a 100-year project I have in mind.”
Nakaswa can’t wait to help, he said after the performance. “It’s pretty big, something you don’t even have a way to put into words.”
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