Ryotaro Harada took a message of "joy in action" to Indonesia recently. The Japanese resident of China had been asked to speak at a sensitization workshop in connection with the launch the ASEC-TNF Project on Leprosy and Human Dignity. JIA, of which he is general secretary, organizes volunteer work camps at leprosy villages in southern China. There are about 600 such villages, home to 20,000 people.
Work camps see student volunteers live for one to three weeks in a village, carrying out tasks from building toilets to doing housework. In 2002, JIA organized activities in two villages; last year, it did so in 37. Each village is a stage to change society, Harada said. People from surrounding districts start to lose their fear of the settlement when they see students eating and drinking with the villagers and going hand-inhand with them to local markets. Villagers start to gain confidence to venture beyond the village.
Strong personal relationships develop between villagers and volunteers, which is why the latter keep coming back. They are not service providers; they are there because they want to be. People think students in China are just interested in getting good jobs, said Harada, but their mindset is changing. They believe the "problem" of the leprosy villages is their problem and they should do something about it. He is also hopeful that the growing network of volunteer alumni will bring further change to society as they come to occupy influential positions in decades to come.
Harada first worked as a volunteer in a village called Linho. Once a symbol of segregation, it is now a symbol of integration. There he met his wife, a fellow volunteer and work camp staff member. They were married in the village, and when their daughter was born they named her Linho.