Japanese prosthesis maker finds calling in Rwanda

FEATURE: Japanese prosthesis maker finds calling in Rwanda

TOKYO, Aug. 3 Kyodo

As Rwandan swimmer Cesar Rwagasana strode into a Sydney stadium for the opening ceremony of last year’s Paralympic Games amid a roaring crowd, the woman who helped him walk again was a few steps behind him, smiling.

Mami Yoshida’s nongovernmental organization Mulindi/Japan One Love Project provided Cesar a prosthetic left leg after he lost it in the conflict following the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The swimmer was also all smiles as he waved to the audience, and the event marked Rwanda’s first participation in the games.

Cesar is one of about 800,000 Rwandans, 10% of the country’s population, who were maimed by mines and fighting in the violence that broke out after Hutu extremists began slaughtering minority Tutsis.

His new limb was the fruit of a journey Yoshida embarked on after she grew bored of corporate life in Japan. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1963, Yoshida later graduated from an English-language school and became interested in Africa in 1989 when she came across a guidebook on studies there.

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

Learning about Swahili-language studies in Kenya, she immediately sent a letter to the office concerned asking for detailed information. Half a year later, she was on a plane to Nairobi.

Yoshida enjoyed life in Kenya and extended her stay, originally scheduled for five months, after she met and fell in love with neighbor Gatera Rudasingwa, 39.

Gatera was abandoned by his parents and raised at a child-care facility. They regarded him a burden because of paralysis in his right leg caused by errors in medical treatment he received as a boy.

He wanted to help the physically handicapped in his native Rwanda, and his hope was shared by Yoshida, who reflected, ”I also wanted to become as strong as him.”

After she returned to Japan, Yoshida trained at an artificial limb factory in Yokohama for five years and obtained a license as an artificial limb maker. She settled in Rwanda in 1997.

In the heart of its capital Kigali, which is surrounded by rich greenery, Yoshida and Gatera founded their base of operations, called ”One Love Land,” where Mulindi/Japan provides prostheses to Rwandans free of charge.

Given a hectare of land by the Rwandan government, the couple has 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, the two established a restaurant and expanded a lodging facility there. Cesar, who took part in the Sydney Paralympic Games, is learning how to make artificial legs and works at the restaurant at night.

Yoshida and Gatera visited Japan in May this year for a series of lectures in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, Kyoto and elsewhere.

Yoshida told her listeners about the plight of the handicapped poor in Rwanda, saying, ”Mothers who have lost both their spouses and legs in the civil war are selling their artificial legs to get money for milk for their children. 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 the Chigasaki city hall. Says Yoshida, ”We want to have children and travel around the world to appeal for help. The base for our life is in Rwanda because there is work to be done there.”

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