At the beginning I thought I would not even mention her blindness. Maybe I would write about that only at the end, as additional information. All in all why should it have such a big meaning? But in fact, it does. Because Yoshi with her belief, attitude and engagement, with her way of dealing with small and big daily problems, with her enthusiasm and optimism opened our eyes each of the few days we could spend with her in Phrao, Thailand, where Yoshi leads her Always Reading Caravan (ARC) Project. But before I write more about it, let’s have a look at the story of Yoshi which brings her to the point she is today.
I liked to read since I was small. It was my grandfather who mostly read for me since I was 2-3 years old. I really liked the world of stories. When I went to primary school I learned Braille quickly, I was motivated, I could read myself and I didn’t have to ask other people to help me. Since then reading for pleasure is a part of my life. Another thing is that as blind person I was always helped and I’m still helped a lot. What I really didn’t like is that feeling of not being able to contribute back. It’s almost like a phobia. I don’t want to think of myself as useless. When I was about 12 I started to learn English. I really liked it, it opened me a way to communicating with somebody I couldn’t have interaction with otherwise. When I went to Tokyo I realized I can also study abroad. When I was 18 I went to the USA where I met a lot of people from different backgrounds. In Japan, where I am from, we are all very similar. We don’t have too many immigrants. We don’t see a lot of differences in wealth as well. There are not so many very poor people or very rich. When we have disabilities we are more likely to be educated in specialized schools. I was born blind so I went to those special schools where most of my peers had similar situations to me. I didn’t have much experience with people from very different backgrounds. I liked to read about that in books, I watched TV or listened to radio but I never had friends who survived a war, or who were abused by parents, or who were refugees in need to adapt to a new country. When I met them in the USA it was really an eye-opening experience: wow! People like that really exist and they in fact are like you and me. They have the same issues, being dumped by their boyfriend, not liking spinach, normal things. I started to be very interested in international development. I understood how lucky I was to have understanding parents. My parents are not so modern, they are quite traditional thinking, but they still allow me to study abroad. I was born on a farm and blind, but I still could do that. And so many other people couldn’t. How unfair is that. In the USA I started to be interested in Thailand. During my university years I came back there a few times for work or exchange. Before moving here for good I had a two years period of working in Tokyo for some big company, but I didn’t really like it. I had a quite ok salary but I didn’t feel it was benefiting anybody. I felt my work was so worthless. By this time I got to know about kanthari and I decided to apply.
As we can read on kanthari.org: “Kanthari in Trivandrum, Kerala, South of India offers a 7 month, scholarship based leadership program for visionaries who have overcome adversity and who are keen to drive ethical social change anywhere in the world”. Beside participating in the kanthari course, Yoshi, together with 6 other kantharis from Poland, India, Brazil, Uganda, Serbia, and Germany is initiating a peer learning network for kanthari alumni which helps them grow, learn, and support each other.
To apply to kanthari I already needed some ideas. I didn’t want to do things just for blind. Disability and development field is so small, everybody knows everybody, I wanted to do something different. I always wanted to promote inclusive society. That time I have already visited Thailand many times and I noticed that people don’t read at all, especially in rural areas, they watch TV but often have not even one book. For me this is incredible, how parents can not have books for their child. I really wanted to do something about that. I wrote in my application project that I want to make a library for all. They accepted me so I went for the several months course. At one point there I got the idea of creating a mobile library, so disabled people or elder or people with small babies or sick can use it. That’s how the full idea started.
Yoshi came to Thailand in February 2010 and firstly she started to implement her idea in Bangkok. But from the very beginning she felt that was not a place she was really needed in. In September 2011 she moved to Phrao, on the north, two hours by bus from Chiang Mai. Here she supports small local communities and hill tribes. Her actions focus on three main elements: the library, the mobile library service, and the children centers.
At the beginning with To, my first employee, we organized a mobile library using the motorbike. But in this part of Thailand people are shy, they have a little higher walls. They don’t dare to come to us when we arrive on a motorbike trying to encourage them to borrow books for free. They wanted to know more about who we are and what we do. That’s why we opened a venue functioning as a library. But we still keep the mobile service: once a month we go to schools, people with disabilities, sick or old one. We tried to reach with the mobile library service also the hill tribes. I didn’t think about that before, but when I went to the hill villages I realized people in these communities don’t speak any Thai, they speak their own languages. So it makes no sense to bring a mobile library there. After consulting local people we decided to open a Children Literacy Center instead. It was not in our original plan, but it turned out to be needed so we did it. We opened 3 centers, 2 of which are still working. One we had to close because of a lack of children in one of the villages.
Before Yoshi got to the point in which she is now, she had to overcome a lot of problems. Above all, she had to convince the local community about both the project and herself: firstly, she is blind, which is already untypical for Phrao’s inhabitants; Furthermore, she is from Japan. But with time, she became a respected member of the community. On the third birthday of the library, which we were lucky enough to attend and helped to organize, about 150 people participated. A great achievement in such a small village. That’s also what motivates Yoshi to keep going.
I really like to see that the community develops around the library. At the beginning nobody paid attention. There were just a few people borrowing books and that’s it. Now we have regular children activities and literacy centers. It’s really growing to be a part of the community. For me the ARC project should function not as a simple library but as a community center. I really enjoy the project growing and the children keep on coming. I feel that what we do is worth it. It’s motivating for me. I always want to pass the message: everybody can be a giver, doesn’t matter the circumstances. Some people look at me, at our project and they discover that they can also do something, even if they don’t have a lot of money, property, or education. They can be a giver as well.
Yoshi’s courage and daily hard work motivate a lot of people to take their own action. Her blindness is not indifferent in this case: people see that if this is not a sound obstacle in giving, it means that really everyone can do it. What other meaning does Yoshi’s blindness have?
Well, it has both positive and negative consequences. Negative: limitation in work. I can’t drive, I can’t do much of the physical work. There are so many things which people with sight can do faster. Maybe if I was able to do it, it would change my relationship with the employees. What I do is invisible to them. They only see the people I bring in, the money I rise, but they don’t see me working physically too much. For a down to earth community like that it may be not so easy to associate. Also the relation with children, it’s a little bit difficult to engage with small children as they are kind of afraid of different people. I don’t have much contact with them, which is sad because I really like to work in the field.
The good point is that I can sell my project better. It’s odd for people: a blind, Japanese woman with a Thai project. It's a good point to catch attention. A lot of time we can’t catch people, there is so much information in the world, social activists, NGOs. It’s so difficult to have somebody’s interest. This is the biggest advantage of being blind. Another thing is that I have feelings toward the people who are helped all the time. I can say that I may have less tendency for a top-down social approach. WE help YOU. YOU get help from the US. No. We try to be coexisting. We always tell people to help us as without them we can’t exist. Also in the villages we ask people to help: “come and clean the children center from time to time”, “bring fruits to children”. It’s very important to get people involved.
Involving people, especially workers, is also one of the biggest challenges for Yoshi.
One of my biggest challenges is human resource. Partly because we are in a remote area. I don’t think it would be so difficult in Bangkok. But here if you want to have people from the community it’s very difficult to balance between utilization of human resources and meeting their needs. Does what we can provide meet their expectations? The workers are committed, but they are not dreamers like me. There is still a difference, the level of commitment is maybe a little bit less than I would like to see, but if you have somebody from the community, they are down to earth and quite materialists. Another challenge is to find a person to whom I can entrust the organization. It is just like a mother with her baby. Mother loves her baby the most. You can hire a very good babysitter but she is working just for money, it’s not unconditional love. As we used to say in Japan, now I’m looking for a good husband for my project. I’m waiting for the wedding but so far finding the boyfriend it’s been quite difficult. There are not many changemakers in the local communities but it makes sense to hand the project over to someone local.
And what is needed to be a changemaker?
To be a changemaker you have to be a little bit unrealistic. This world is so full of bad meanings. If you only read the newspaper and believe in it, there is no room to dream. In Asia, and I suppose also in many other countries, we are often discouraged, we are said to forget about our dreams and concentrate on work. You have to be able to stand out and say: “I dare to dream”. You have to be a little bit unrealistic, crazy. Practical skills can come later. If you are passionate enough, you can convince people to join your dream, to do things with you. They also start to believe it.
Dream it. And that’s when dreams can come true.
Yoshimi Horiuchi - graduate of kanthari program, founder and leader of Always Reading Caravan project in Phrao, Thailand.
Contact thanks to kanthari plus global network, dedicated to kanthari alumni.
Consultation: Tomasz Kozakiewicz, creator of kanthari plus global network.