The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Research > Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers


Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Linking Experience and Knowledge of African Studies to Student Volunteer Activities

Yukino Iwai
Assistant Professor, Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC)

Fascinated by the power of the African people

My field of specialization is the study of the impact of wildlife conservation policy on local people’s livelihood and the interaction between wild animals and local ethnic culture. I have been interested in Africa and wildlife conservation since my university student days, when I studied environmental conservation and wrote my graduation thesis on the relationship between Japanese deer and the forestry. As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to visit Kenya having been invited by a neighbor, and was completely fascinated not only by the country’s nature and animals but also by the power of the African people. Soon after graduating, therefore, I applied to join the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and lived in Tanzania for two years as a science and mathematics schoolteacher.

At that time, I had hardly any chance to get to know about the people living around conservation areas, and after returning to Japan I entered graduate school and began my studies in earnest. Taking the Ikoma inhabited area adjacent to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania (Fig.1) as my research field, I investigated the impact of conservation policy on the livelihoods and culture of the local communities. Not that I had any local connections, however! I wandered around the villages next to the national park by myself, but there was no hotel or guesthouse. When I asked at a small shop selling fried bread and tea if there was anywhere I could stay in the village, the mother of the shop said, “Well, you can stay at my house.” From that point on, Mama Lucy’s household was a great help to me as my host family. (Photo 1)

Fig.1 Serengeti National Park and the Ikoma inhabited area

Photo 1 Mama Lucy’s home

Loss of identity as hunters

Photo 2 Traditional hunting (re-enactment)

First of all, I surveyed the current livelihood strategy of Ikoma people. I was worried the villagers might get annoyed with this Japanese person turning up out of the blue and prying into their household finances and living circumstances, but in the end, supported by the hospitality and kindness of these Africans who believe that “a visitor is a gift from god”, I managed to conduct a family subsistence survey on all 200 or so households. From this survey I compiled my master’s thesis. My subsequent conclusion was that the wildlife conservation policy held no benefit for local residents and in fact had significant loss.

The national park is a source of some income for the villagers, providing them with part-time jobs as construction workers, security guards, and so on. However, the rewards of the tourism industry, Tanzania’s second largest income source, have not been passed on to Ikoma communities. Hunting gnus and zebras for food has now been banned and so they have to buy meat at markets. On top of this, Ikom have been robbed of the idea that hunting turns Ikoma young men into fully-fledged men, which is the means to gain status in Ikoma society. The reality is that they are losing their identity, the ethnic knowledge and culture inherited through hunting, and have yet to find anything to replace it.

For my doctoral course, I walked around three villages interviewing 250 people to find the differences between past and present and to identify the long-term changes in the community. The people no longer leave their village to go hunting in the savanna, and they travel to and from nearby villages by bus instead of on foot, so their contact with wild animals no longer carries any risk. When I saw some of the younger villagers looking out of a bus and saying, “Hey, lions!” I realized their feeling had become similar to that of tourists.

They also hunted in secret. At first I thought they were conducting this forbidden activity because they did not understand the value of African wildlife. But I was wrong. The villagers had no means of directly resisting the irrational situation in which western values were being imposed on them. Neither did they know how to assert their opinion collectively. The only small resistance they could muster as underdogs was to break the rules while pretending to obey them – they received aid for keeping livestock while continuing to hunt in secret. This phenomenon is called “the resistance of the weak” in community development studies conducted by developing countries.

Photo 3 Village assembly

Recently there is a strong movement to encourage the people to influence actual political and social mechanisms, such as by trying to produce a member of parliament from villages, going to petition the National Assembly, and so on. When a tourist hotel was built with American capital in an adjacent area, the site encroached upon the land of the villagers so they resisted by taking the matter to court. They are now beginning to put up modern-style legal battles rather than just the resistance of the weak as in the past.

Returning to Tanzania with student volunteers

In 2005 I began working at WAVOC (The Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center), where my current job is to bring student volunteers together with local communities by utilizing my experience and knowledge of Africa. I have long felt a strong desire to do something about the inequalities between Africa and the developed world, and while at graduate school I launched a non-profit organization called AFRIC Africa. So being able to work at WAVOC providing support services has been a stroke of good fortune for me.

At WAVOC I launched the Ecommunity Tanzania volunteer project, in which every year I take about ten students on a two-week visit to the my familiar Ikoma area to conduct volunteer work while staying in the homes of local families (Table 1). Upon launching this project, we held a meeting with village council members, and the students conducted interviews, from which we realized the extent of the problem of crop damage done by elephants getting out of the national park.

Walking around the households to survey the situation, we found that 90% of them had received extensive damage. The people had tried various ways to drive the elephants away such as beating on plastic containers or creating smoke, but these had hardly any effect. Then we found that threatening the elephants with car headlights and engine sounds at night was effective, so we developed a program centered on management of patrol cars which were special specification vehicles donated by Mitsubishi Motors. Recently, we have also adopted a unique method of driving the elephants away with honeybees. This strategy has been successful in Kenya, and has the additional benefit of enabling the villagers to collect the harvested honey too. Now, wherever we go, people ask us for beehives. This year we have increased the number of beehives using a grant from W-BRIDGE, an environmental initiative jointly run by Waseda University and Bridgestone Corporation.

Photo 4 Students helping to set up a beehive

It is very important for students to look back and reflect on their experience such as volunteer work. The students I took to Africa saw with their own eyes the reality of the villagers’ suffering, enabling them to understand that conserving the environment and protecting animals are not always necessarily the right thing to do, and to gain a more critical and diverse perspective of things that seem obvious when viewed from Japan. WAVOC runs open courses for students from all faculties, and one of the lessons from the courses that I give is Reflection of Your Experience. The aim is for students to look again at what they have learned through their volunteer work, to share it in words, and to link it to their own personal growth. From next academic year, we will expand the scope of subjects to the various activities that students have experienced such as temporary or part-time work and internships in order to develop more students in our effort to make this WAVOC’s trademark course.

I have been visiting Tanzania for 15 years, and it has become my second home. When I first took students there, the villagers were pleased to see me and said, “Yukino has returned as a fine teacher!” When I took my husband and two children there, the villagers said, “You are already the member of this village. We will give you a plot of land to build a house.” And they did give me some land! I really feel grateful to them. I would like to build a home there in future.

I have also written a book about WAVOC’s various activities. For one year after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I devoted myself to taking students to the disaster area to do voluntary work. I wrote about this period in the booklet shown in the above photo, “Bring student power to the disaster area! – Behind the scenes with Waseda volunteers (Gakusei no pawaa wo hisaichi e ! –Waseda-gata Boranthia no Butaiura” (Waseda University Press).

Yukino Iwai
Assistant Professor, Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC)

Graduated in from the Department of Environmental Science and Conservation, Faculty of Agriculture, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in 1993. Obtained doctoral program credits on the Course of African Area Studies at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University in 2003, obtained a PhD in Human and Environmental Studies. Her areas of specialization are environmental sociology, African area studies, wildlife conservation, and volunteer education. She worked as a JICA volunteer and a representative director of the AFRIC Africa non-profit organization (a post that she still holds concurrently) before taking up her current job. She is the author of books including: Walking in the global society – Human sciences of involvement [Guroobaru shakai wo aruku – Kakawari no ningenbunkagaku]; Making the world a little better – The story of Waseda University student volunteers [Sekai wo chotto demo yoku shitai – Sodaiseitachi no borantia monogatari]; and others.