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Asian Rural Institute in High Gear

October 3, 2013

The weather has changed. The Hokkaido Express (like the Montreal Express) seemed to blow in, and everyone is bundled up. Enet from Malawi has been crocheting colorful hats for all her African sisters. Of course, we are enjoying the cooler temperature.

It’s been three weeks since the ARI class of 2013 returned from their Rural Community Study Tour. There are 14 women, 17 men and one male Training Coordinator. They come from Brazil, Ecuador, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon, Malawi, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Nepal, Japan and Sri Lanka. Through working together in the kitchen, cleaning eggs (Joyce), caring for pigs (Bob), harvesting rice and working on planning committees together, we can call each other family. To some, we are Auntie and Uncle. For Joyce, that’s a promotion. The first day she tried to hoe and make planting beds, the young participants told her to “Please take a rest, Madam!”

We are no longer eating cucumbers three times a day, and the tomatoes are about gone. We’ve moved on to squash, pumpkin and soybeans now. Eating in season is very ARI. It makes sense, and of course that’s what people used to do, but even when we resolve to eat what’s in season back home in NH, we can’t resist lettuce and salad veggies in the winter. At that time, the ARI community eats root crops or vegetables preserved through canning or freezing, rice, eggs, pork and fish produced on the farm.

ARI’s 40th Anniversary Celebration has now come and gone. We even welcomed a typhoon as a guest! Despite the wind and rain, it was an amazing time with over 50 graduates returning, some for a week or longer. Jerome from Bangladesh represented the very first ARI Class of 1973! We were thrilled to renew friendships with ARI Class of 2010 graduates Hoshi and Manar who we met on our last volunteer visit.

All these graduates have been working for non-government organizations (NGOs) that help women, children and disadvantaged or indigenous people, establishing their own NGOs, preaching and caring for congregations, or creating demonstration farms to train others in organic farming, food preservation and sanitation. Our event was a true international symposium with seminars, panels and breakout sessions. The grads shared their experiences and generated ideas of how ARI can further support future graduates. You can imagine the powerful impact their presence made on this current class about to graduate in December.

About ten AFARI (American Friends of ARI) members from the U.S. and Canada attended the celebration. One night we prepared the meal - pasta and soybeans tossed with basil pesto, roasted vegetables, pumpkin curry soup, rice, chocolate chip cookies, and rhubarb cobbler. All ingredients except pasta, wheat flour, and chocolate chips were grown at ARI. We cooked for 150 people. On the main celebration day, the ARI kitchen served 300 people.

Community Rice Harvest Day was a first for us. Most ARI paddies are harvested mechanically, but rural South Asian participants usually harvest by hand. After songs and a prayer, we sallied forth in a line and cut bunches of rice stalks with a sickle. Others constructed a bamboo drying rack, bundled the stalks with twine and hung them upside down on the bamboo pole.

Joyce harvested in an experimental non-tillage paddy, meaning the rice was allowed to grow naturally with no weeding. Therefore, weeds had to be extracted before bundling - a nice sit-down task! Walking on the banks of the paddies to participate in the usual group photo, Joyce stepped in a hole, twisted her ankle and fell. After some rather painful stretching massage by an Indian guest and acupuncture by a Thai participant, her ankle healed quickly.

There is such a spirit of caring here. If anyone becomes sick, someone is there to help. We sing and pray (in many languages or silently) before each meal and community event and at weekday Morning Gatherings which are led by community members in turn. There is a strong awareness of God’s grace throughout each day and many opportunities to share our faith. On Monday evenings, a prayer group prays for community concerns. On Wednesdays a gospel choir, practices and attracts local Japanese community members. A Lectio Divinia group meets for Bible study on Thursdays. One can choose to worship at several churches on Sunday morning. Enet’s strong voice praised God one Sunday at the Nishinasuno United Church of Christ.

Robert and Joyce Ray serve as short-term volunteers at the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Japan.

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