That We May Live Together: Asian Rural Institute
By Christie R. House
For 35 years, the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) has trained rural community leaders to quietly transform the world. The 18-acre ARI farm, situated in Nasushiobara, in northern Japan, enables its students to re-imagine their communities as harbors for peace and justice and then gives them the tools to make it so.
Michiko Sugawara, ARI's admissions coordinator, occasionally has a chance to travel to places where ARI graduates live and work to see what they have accomplished after leaving the institute. Since its founding in 1973, ARI has trained 1,100 rural leaders from 52 countries. Sugawara wrote about her 2007 trip to Sri Lanka, home to 73 ARI graduates, in ARI's December 2007 "Take My Hand" newsletter.
"The media often give the same two images of Sri Lanka," she wrote, "the tsunami and the civil war. Behind these media reports, however, our graduates, who are carrying out their activities at the grassroots, are patiently leading their people toward spiritual richness rather than material wealth."
Sugawara describes a trip to Galle, Sri Lanka, a village that had been devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Instead of hopeless destruction, however, she found children dancing, old people playing music and singing, women speaking freely, and palm and fruit trees blooming all around. Wimal, a 1990 ARI graduate, had developed the Habaraduwa Participatory Development Foundation, in which all the staff members, except for him, are women.
The place for rural women in Sri Lanka is usually inside the four walls of their kitchens, but Wimal encouraged the women of Galle to get out into their community. They organized people into small groups to consider microcredit business loans, occupational training, and other kinds of assistance. "Their role is to draw out the leadership potential within the village, especially of the women," noted Sagawara.
After his ARI training, Wimal decided that instead of trying to lead the villagers himself, it would be better for him to encourage the rural women to take on more responsibility. The women got the villagers moving. It's not money from overseas that brought independence to this village," Sagawara concludes. "Organizing people and teaching them to value themselves and initiate their own activities [brought independence]."
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