O.G.A. for Aid works for Disaster Relief, Community Rehabilitation & Economic Enhancement. Currently operations are ongoing in Minamisanrikucho, Miyagi Ken, Tohoku. A town which suffered 95% infrastructure wipe out in the 2011 tsunami.
Welcome to our Volunteers Blog, where members, staff, friends and sponsors share their stories about working with OGA for Aid.
First up, meet Jon Pompfret – a teacher, traveller, back packer and volunteer from England.
In August 2012 I spent ten days volunteering with OGA for Aid in Minamisanriku. For two years I’d been living and teaching in a small rural town in Kochi prefecture, and I wanted to make some small contribution to the recovery effort in Tohoku before heading back to the UK. Within a couple of hours of emailing OGA about the possibility of working with them I got a reply asking when I could be there, and how long I’d be staying. So, after saying my goodbyes in Kochi, I made my way to Sendai, and from there caught the Hotel Kanyo shuttle bus to Minamisanriku.
It was hard to know what to expect of a place I’d seen so much of for a short time eighteen months earlier, but which had since gradually slipped off of the evening news. I wondered how much progress could have been made in a place which had suffered such destruction. As you enter the town you’re quickly reminded of just how devastating a day March 11th 2011 had been, but also of how hard people had been working since that day to help Minamisanriku back to its feet.
Since the tsunami, OGA had been working to aid the town’s rehabilitation through the delivery of supplies, community support, and the organisation of various employment projects for those whose only sources of income had been lost. During my time in the area I was to be working on their Green Farmers Association (GFA) project, in which local residents whose land was destroyed by the tsunami were employed to farm, previously disused, plots of land obtained by OGA.
Each morning at 10am – OGA staff work late into the evening seven days a week, and so allow themselves and their volunteers the small pleasure of a short daily lie-in – we’d drive over to the fields, grab a bucket and some shears, and get to work. In August there were cucumbers, eggplant, green peppers, okra, and tomatoes to be harvested, sorted, weighed, and delivered. It was hot (sometimes wet), and the work was tiring (particularly in what came to be known asトマト地獄 – tomato hell), but it felt good to be outside and to know that the efforts we were putting in were making a small contribution to the regeneration of the local area.
Once the last case had been packed and delivered, we’d pick up some dinner, and head back to the Seaside Centre at Hotel Kanyo for the evening. Most nights, after making very grateful use of the hotel’s onsen, we’d sit around, have a few beers, sing some karaoke (once said few beers had been had), and generally just take the opportunity to relax and enjoy ourselves after a hard day’s slog. Such lightheartedness is pretty important in a place where conversations can quite easily become decidedly heavy, and it made up a big part of the experience which I took with me from Minamisanriku. Once suitably relaxed, it was back round the corner to the newly acquired, and named, Bunkhouse – former quarters of the hotel’s staff which OGA had been granted the use of. We weren’t Dust Bowl migrant workers, but, for a house filled with bunks, the name was pretty fitting.
When it came time for me to leave Minamisanriku, I realised that, stupidly, I’d planned my departure to coincide with the first day of Obon (three days of family reunions to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors), and, with the tsunami’s destruction of the railway line, the day’s reduced bus service Ieft me with no way of reaching Kesennuma (40km to the north) other than to stick out my thumb and hope for some sympathy. No more than three cars passed before a lovely middle-aged couple pulled in and offered me a lift. Now living in Sendai, they had grown up along that stretch of coast, and returned whenever they could to see how the recovery was progressing. They said they’d guessed I must have been a volunteer, and had wanted to help me out as a sign of their gratitude. Despite my insistence that it was I who should be grateful, and that they could kick me out at any convenient point along their route, they went well out of their way to drop me at the front door of Kesennuma station, helped me with my bag, and waved me off.
Their kindness reflected the attitude of many who I’d met during my time in Minamisanriku – from those receiving supplies in temporary accommodation, to people we’d bump into at the konbini on the way back from the fields – and made me feel privileged to have been, if only for a short time, part of an organisation so appreciated by those people with, and for, whom they work. If you are considering volunteering in the Tohoku region, and are looking for a real experience working alongside local people as they rebuild their communities, then please get in touch with O.G.A. FOR AID I hope that your time in Minamisanriku is as fulfilling as mine was.