The morning of the third day of the project arrived. As on the previous days, we had a wake-up call at 6 a.m. My body felt heavy, likely the result of aching muscles from the physical work and fatigue from the journey. We ate our breakfast from 6:30 a.m. and joined the other participants an hour later. On this day, my two youngest boys and I were assigned to the same team. My three eldest sons and my wife were sent to another team. My team took charge of the restroom. Meanwhile, my wife and our older boys worked with the orphan team.

The “orphan team” focused on working with about 100 senior pupils, among the 250 orphans at the school. They had reportedly been targets of domestic violence, had lost property left to them by their parents, or had been the subject of sexual harassment from their relatives. As a result, these children had grown sensitive to their circumstances. For that reason, people in the project called them “vulnerable children,” instead of “orphans.” 

The mission for the vulnerable children team was to produce a “memory book” together with the vulnerable children who came to their school during the winter break. Experts say vulnerable children sometimes experience a memory loss as a result of mental disorders or lose their identity as they get older. The team’s mission was to encourage the children to remember as many things about their background and family as possible, and leave a record as evidence of their own life.

The work assigned to vulnerable children team was quite different from physical labor. Reaching out to their hearts was necessary for their task.

In the meantime, the restroom team had the task of cleaning the restroom, painting the walls and improving their appearance. This was simple labor in the cramped space of the restroom. Frankly, I wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic about it, thinking that I hadn’t really intended to travel all the way from Japan to Africa to clean up the toilets. But determined to help improve the education environment of African children, I kept my grumbles to myself and set about the work.

I asked my two sons, aged four and seven, to paint the lower parts of the walls, while I took charge of the higher areas, which they were unable to reach. Inexperienced at the task, paint fell on my face and T-shirt. After finishing the internal walls, we painted the wooden toilet doors and walls on both sides of each toilet compartment. After a break, we worked on window frames, the last restroom section we were assigned to paint. We needed a ladder for the task because the restroom windows were quite high. The windows faced south, and the strong sunlight slowly baked our necks.

As the day progressed, I started contemplating the meaning of this work. In the first place, we understood that local construction workers were paid about 1~2 dollars an hour. (Because of the hyperinflation, U.S. dollars are commonly used in Zimbabwe in place of the local currency.) Let us assume that I worked very hard and was almost as productive as a local worker. In that case, the economic value of my labor is one dollar per hour. Accordingly, four hours of my work has the economic effect of four dollars. So if I would hire a local worker and get the same job done, it would cost four dollars. In Japan, by contrast, I would have an economic value of more than 10,000 yen an hour, as a dean and as the managing partner of a venture capital firm.

This means that the economic value of my work in Africa was less than one-hundredth of the value of my work in Japan. According to my calculations, I generate a greater economic value for society at large by working in Japan and could donate small fraction of it rather than by performing this volunteer work in Africa.

Many questions arose in my mind. “Does this volunteer work have any meaning?” “Is it purely for the sake of our own satisfaction?” “Would it be better for me to donate the same amount, hire a local worker and create a job in a country suffering from unemployment than to do the work myself?” “Aren’t we, in fact, depriving local workers of employment opportunities?”

Those questions led me to the following reasoning as I painted the facilities. “There may be little economic meaning in this volunteer work, which was done purely for personal satisfaction in the first place.” My enthusiasm for the work quickly ebbed, as I thought, “My four hours of morning work are worth only four dollars.”

But negative thinking gets us nowhere. So, I decided to think more constructively. “What is the contribution with the greatest economic value that I could make?” As a matter of fact, a professional artist was taking part in this Isikolo Project. He was producing a painting to be put up for auction of which the proceeds would be donated to the school. I thought, “Wealthy people may make contributions by donating their money. People with networks may be contributing to the school by planning and managing projects like this one. Journalists may make contributions by informing people about the state of the school.” Simple physical work gave me the chances to think on these subjects through.

“I may be able to increase the economic value of my volunteer work by enhancing the symbolic meaning of the service and increasing its visibility across society,” I pondered. “Public interest may grow, volunteer workers may increase in number, and more money may be donated if I inform people in Japan and the world about the current state of Africa that we are facing now.”

As Mother Teresa once said, “The antonym for ‘love’ is not ‘hate,’ but ‘indifference.’” I thought, “One of my roles may be to raise interest in Japan and the world and raise awareness and money to flow into Africa, instead of allowing people to turn their back on the current state of the continent. The same can be said about vulnerable children. The important thing is to take an interest in them and give them love.”

(Author’s note) Based on these thoughts, I decided to write columns and raise interest towards Africa. That’s why I’m writing this column at breakneck speed. This is the contribution with the highest economic value that I think I can make. By writing columns like this, I can increase the value far beyond one dollar an hour.

Further thoughts occurred to me. “This would have an educational effect, too. Children would learn about Africa, realize how fortunate they are, and think about the meaning of volunteer work. Giving this opportunity to kids while they are still young may have an infinite value in itself.” It’s a way of thinking that we are not giving something through our volunteer work, but GAINING value in return.

I was absorbed in thought as I painted. I went to catch a glimpse of the vulnerable children team during a break from our work. My three eldest boys were sitting next to the local children. They were doing their best to engage with the vulnerable children. They were working together on an assignment, which was, “Life when I was little.” While other pupils wrote in English, my second son was writing in Japanese. The sight gave me the impression that my own kids may be gaining more from the service than the local children are getting.

I sat down next to the children. All the vulnerable children in the room have a twinkle in their eyes. They enjoyed playing soccer with us during a break. All the locals were good soccer players. We could communicate with them through sports, songs and gestures even if our languages did not permit verbal exchanges. Language is important, but it is the willingness to engage that is even more essential.

Intermission was over, and I returned to my work in the restroom. I kept painting doggedly, my hands becoming soaked in paint. Ordinary soap was ineffective, so I used a thinner-liked liquid to wash the color off, so my hands smelled like thinner. But, nevertheless I continued to work.

The siren dominated at noon. We finished our work for the day and returned to our hotel. I had generated the economic value of four dollars. But I know that I had learned and gained much more over the course of the four hours.

August 9, 2010
Yoshito Hori
From a hotel in Zimbabwe