Japan is the biggest donor of aid to Africa, but as its own economy begins to suffer, cuts in disbursements are on the way. What impact will this have on the pace of development in Africa?
Minani Kazuko laughs uproariously as the little infant she is cradling reaches up to tug at her ear-lobe. Ms Kazuko coos at the baby in a mixture of Japanese, English and Dhiluya, a local dialect in vogue around Oyugis, a small, forgotten town in the Nyanza province of Kenya. The infant has Downs syndrome. "Her legs are very weak," says her mother who has walked some 12km to attend the once-a month mobile clinic run by Ms Kazuko. "But her arms have become much stronger since last time," beams the 26-year-old Japanese volunteer.
The mobile clinic has been set up in a disused classroom at a local school. We are surrounded by babies and their mothers. Ms Kazuko and a couple of cheerful nurses are busy weighing, measuring and checking scores of infants.
The mothers sit wiping away the sweat from their faces in the intense heat. They are glad for the breather. Most have walked several kilometres to come to the clinic. A long walk back awaits them. Then they will have to prepare the evening meal for the family.
"Life is difficult for us," says the little girl's mother; then pointing to the Japanese woman, adds "but she is giving us hope."
Minani Kazuko is one of the thousands of Japanese volunteers sent out by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to various parts of the developing world. They get involved in all sorts of tasks. During our tour of Kenya and Zambia, we saw them beavering away in automobile workshops, teaching disabled children, instructing the police in self-defence, raising chickens, running water supply systems, setting up small business units, running hospitals and carrying out research into deadly tropical diseases and AIDS.
The volunteers (on two-year contracts), and the experts who bring their technical skills to the developing world, are the human interface of a vast network that forms the Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme (see box).
Minani Kazuko was working as mid wife and surgical nurse in Sapporo, north Japan when she saw a telecast of the appalling conditions some African children were in. She decided there and then that she would dedicate a part of her life to try and help the children. She applied to JICA, was accepted and spent three months training and learning English. When she arrived in Kenya, she picked up Swahili and some Luo.
When we met her, she seemed perfectly in her element, rattling off phrases in the local dialect and making everybody she came into contact with smile at her charm and boundless energy. She occupied a small office at the Matata Nursing Home - built and stocked by the Japanese but now running as a private hospital. It is a clean, airy building with facilities for a hundred in-patients.
The Matata Nursing home was our last destination in Kenya. I had arrived a couple of days earlier and joined up with a group of some 15 Kenyan journalists. After a briefing at the JICA office in Nairobi and a tour of a couple of projects, we had flown out to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.
The next day, we bumped along terrible roads to the village of Enzaro in the Vihiga district. The fields on either side were green and sparkling after their recent shower; the earth was a deep, rich red. This looked like healthy farming land. What struck us however, was the almost complete absence of young people. Someone explained that many had left to work in Kisumu or Nairobi. Still, it seemed strange that given such bountiful land, there were only children and older people around. We were to discover the shocking truth a little later.
Holistic health system
Our first stop was a JICA sponsored Population Education Promotion Project centred around a health clinic also built and equipped by JICA. A group of elderly matrons, clad uniformly in pink and white, greeted us with songs and hand claps. They had formed a woman's collective which...