‘Mama’ Changed Way Of Life in Kenya Village
Kesa Kishida, 64, who has been aiding the residents of Kenya for 30 years, has been awarded this year’s Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize.
In Kenya, many people are still struggling with poverty and infectious diseases. Kishida has helped improve people’s living conditions, including hygiene and health care in the areas she has worked, and also has striven for the provision of better education for orphans.
This is the first time a person engaged in activities in Africa has been awarded the annual prize, which has been conferred 14 times. Furthermore, Kishida is only the second woman to receive the prize, following in the footsteps of former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata–the prize’s first recipient–in 1994.
Kishida, who has a naturally cheerful disposition, has overcome many difficulties, including language barriers and differences in lifestyle in an environment far removed from Japan. Kishida has won the affection of the Kenyan people, as well as the admiration of the Japanese.
The village of Enzaro sits on the equator about 400 kilometers west of Nairobi. Village houses with clay walls dot both sides of paths running through reddish soil.
When Kishida revisited the mountain-based village to check on conditions there, women rushed forward to hug her, expressing their joy by shouting “Mama Kishida!”
The chief of the village, Ronald Oyando, 45, expressed the deep sense of gratitude he felt toward Kishida, who is known as “Mama” and loved by the village’s 2,000 residents. “Thanks to Mama’s efforts for many years, life in our community has changed dramatically. She’s just like a mother in our community,” he said.
Kishida first visited the village in 1991 as a volunteer attached to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which at the time, was promoting education for population control.
The village is located in the most impoverished region of Kenya. Infant deaths related to diarrhea and malaria, were common, so it was not unusual for women in the region to give birth to at least eight children to ensure some survived.
Kishida believed the country’s birthrate would not fall unless there was a drop in the child mortality rate.
Though Kishida urged villagers to boil their drinking water to help prevent diseases, collecting firewood was very demanding work for the women.
The conventional method of heating pots in the village was to place them on heated stones, which had a low thermal efficiency. For the women of the village, it was an extra burden to their already heavy workloads to collect enough firewood for their day-to-day cooking purposes.
Kishida devised the idea of using furnaces similar to those used by the people of her hometown in Tono, Iwate Prefecture.
She devised a furnace that could heat three pots simultaneously, with one of them being used to boil water.
A 70-year-old midwife in the village, who has been using a furnace in her house for 14 years, said children do not become sick anymore because they are drinking boiled water.
“I don’t get burned and I can save on firewood. Everything has gone well since I started using it,” she said.
In a village without electricity or tap water, the effect of the furnaces was revolutionary, spreading through the entire village in less than three months.
Through word of mouth, people in neighboring villages also began using furnaces.
In 2003, about 100,000 Kenyan households were using furnaces to cook and boil water.
In addition, Kishida used stones and sand to build facilities for purifying the village’s spring water.
Kishida also showed barefoot children to make sandals for themselves, established female groups to promote health and hygiene, and taught women to make dresses and raise chickens to earn extra money.
As a result, the number of people falling ill gradually declined and the infant mortality rate fell significantly.
Parents freed from the worry of losing children have become interested in family planning, resulting in each family having three to five children.
“People’s kitchens help give me ideas. I always look at the kitchen when I visit someone to point out areas that could be improved,” she said.
Kishida does not use English, which is spoken only by educated people in Kenya. She uses Swahili, a language widely spoken by local people, and this helps her integrate.
She always tries to use local solutions to improve people’s lives.
Kishida, who initially visited Kenya to study nutrition, has lived in Nairobi since 1975. She married a Japanese businessman living there and has a son and a daughter.
While raising her children, she continued her studies related to food and lifestyle in various parts of Kenya.
At the same time, she taught diabetics about nutrition and provided assistance to orphanages.
Kishida worked for JICA as a specialist until 2003, since when she has worked for the Friends Society for Kenyan Children, a nongovernmental organization established in 1985.
In present-day Kenya, an increasing number of children are losing parents to AIDS, which has caused social problems.
As providing assistance to orphanages alone cannot solve these problems, Kishida is trying to establish a system that can benefit the entire area.
On islands in Lake Victoria, where the HIV-infection rate is high, boats offering medical services visit the islands to teach people how to prevent infection.
In areas surrounding Kakamega Park, the only rain forest in Kenya, Kishida teaches people with AIDS about food and environmental conservation through the planting of medicinal herbs and trees.
Kishida visits every corner of the country, and is even active on Saturdays and Sundays, using her four-wheel-drive vehicle as transport along unpaved roads.
The teachings of Shiro Kawashima, an applied nutrition expert and Kishida’s mentor for 20 years, provide her with her energy and drive.
Kawashima used to say “nutritional knowledge has to be returned to the people,” a remark indicative of his efforts in trying to keep Japanese healthy during and after World War II.
With this remark imprinted on her mind, Kishida fully utilizes what she has learned from the rust-colored land, returning the kindness to Africans who accepted her warmly, even when she did not speak their language.
— Born in Tono, Iwate Prefecture in 1943.
— Graduated from Sagami Women’s University.
— Engaged in nutrition research in more than 30 countries while working for a research institute for food-producing industries.
— Based in Kenya since 1975.
— As a JICA member, she currently educates local people to prevent AIDS/HIV infection in islands in Lake Victoria in western Kenya.
— Married to Nobutaka Kishida, the couple have a son and a daughter.
Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent Oct. 21, 2007