Azwinndini Hendrick Ratshionya is a high school social studies teacher by trade. He is thirty-four years old, and he has a wife and two sons in South Africa. The younger one was conceived here in Japan, while his wife was visiting him, for Azwi is an elementary and junior high school ALT in the city of Tamana, Japan. He wires most of his money home to his family and day after day eats ramen, drinks beer, and bathes in the hot springs around town. These hobbies have made him the most well-known person in the city, especially that last one, because once people see what Az has to offer, they can’t stop talking about it. They tell me about it, too.
Az is the type who can’t stop talking, himself, which in his accounting is the reason the only job he could do is teaching. His first couple years here, though, there wasn’t much he could say to people. The language barrier for him is more like a language wall with a language moat, language turrets, language crocodiles, and language cannons. After five years here, he can’t read or write anything but his name, and his verbal skills are intermediate, loaded with the local dialect people teach him for fun in the bars as well as English interjections because he’s still directly translating in his mind. But he is warm, social, broad-minded, and the only black man in three counties, so people go out of their way to know him. Most of the people I know know Az, and there’s ever more of him to know because all the ramen and Asahi have anti-chiseled his figure from 18 to 48% body fat. This, sadly, has made it a little too dangerous for him to play soccer with the boys at school, but every night spent in consumption overdrive has been a happy one for the other boys in town, their fathers. Well, most of them.
Az’s best friend is Mr. Matsumoto. Az christened him “Boss” because he runs so many things in town, and also because Az couldn’t remember his name the second time they went out together. In fairness, no one can remember Azwi’s full name, either. “James Smyth” is hard enough, so “Azwinndini Ratshionya” is from the seventh circle of ESL hell. He invited us to a goodbye barbecue for Azwi last month, which featured wild boar for all, a lot of running around with the kids for me, and a lot of beer drinking and saying “THIS is the life” for Az and Boss.
Knowing Azwi has been an experience for me and for everyone else. He’ll finish his fifth year this July, and then he has to go home…and I’ll miss him a lot. He’s one of my best friends here. He’s one of the most honest people I’ve met. His ethics may be different from mine, but he always tells me what he’s thinking, and he’s always consistent, and he never speaks badly about others. He’s very flexible, which helps him get along in a country whose culture is completely different from his own and kept him aloof from the US v. Japan throw-down in our Board of Education the year before I came. Azwi was the Man No One Had a Problem With. He expresses genuine gratitude for everything: one of the reasons he’s gained so much weight is that he never turns down an invitation from anyone. He makes friends not only with men and women his age but also with grandfathers, grandmothers, boys, and girls. We’ve had deep conversations about politics, religion, relationships, and Africa, subjects I’ve never broached with most of the other foreign teachers. We agree that Asahi is the best beer in the world and we agree about plenty of other things, too. Every few months, I lend Azwi some money, which he returns on our next payday. Usually this happens after he drinks too much, goes gambling, and gets tricked by his friends into pumping all his money into a “lucky” Pachinko machine, but last month was different: his aunt had breast cancer; he sent two months of salary to Africa to help pay for her treatment, and he needed help so he could afford to feed his own family as well.
Before leaving Japan, Azwi wanted to use his contacts to give something back to the community which had given him so much in so~o many ways. During his one-month Christmas sojourn in South Africa (he has a magical ability to summon more vacation days than anyone else), he met some Zimbabwean kids who had fled to South Africa to escape disease and work for food. Zimbabwe is this year’s most miserable country. The schools there can’t afford to hire teachers let alone provide school supplies. Japan, on the other hand, is so wealthy that even minor farmers who lose money on their business every year can afford to provide their children with too many school supplies and cell phones they can’t bring to school. Azwi put it together: he’d collect unneeded school supplies and send them to Zimbabwe, where he has friends who are teaching pro bono. He talked about it with his good friend and English teaching partner Daiki Shiga. Mr. Shiga had a feeling he’d be transferred to another school, because he’d taught in one place for so long, and he wanted to do a big project too. So they made color fliers with a call for help in Japanese and a picture of a smiling, gap-toothed Az wearing his San Francisco bus driver-brown sweatshirt and holding pencils and pens like they were front row tickets to a prize fight. Azwi also gave these fliers to city offices and to us and asked us to get help.
One of the first things I learned in elementary school is that you can’t say no to kids in Africa. So of course I gave him a hand. I have one junior high school and four elementaries, and they were all happy to pitch in. Everyone here wants to help, but they’re so distant that usually they can’t. As soon as I opened my mouth at the junior high, the 9th grade teachers were dumping promotional pens from high schools on my desk. School supply companies and office workers gave away their things, too. Some of the elementary school kids scraped the bottom of the pen case (“Is this a pencil for ANTS? It needs to be at least -three times- this big!”), but mostly the donations were varied and useful. Isn’t it cute to imagine African children with Dragon Ball pencils and Pokemon erasers? I had a big cardboard box left over because earlier in the winter I had to buy a new convection oven. (My kitchen gas ran out while I was boiling eggs, and I wanted to finish them so I put the entire pot filled with water inside the microwave and started it…you’ve never even heard of someone doing something so daft, right?) I brought that box to my junior high school and put in the entrance hallway with Az’s flier on it. (My students know him, too, as he attends local baseball games.) The first notebooks inside were dwarfed by the aggressive emptiness of the box, but day after day, the kids put in more and more, as if filling it were a matter of pride for them. And they did. The thing was too heavy for me to carry home myself and too big for us to ship. We had to split that box into four baby 20-kilogram boxes. (…Just kidding, actually I just picked it up with my suction-cup abs and punched it all the way to Africa.) I collected at least 90 kg (200 lbs) from my town of 8000, and all in all Azwi, another teacher, and I assembled over 200 kilograms. Our kids are wonderful.
Alas, our success created another problem: we couldn’t afford to ship it all. The price for Japan to the United States is bad, and Japan to Zimbabwe is worse. Our goods could even be stolen by pirates! (What self-respecting pirate would write on a Hello Kitty notebook, though?) One box cost 12,000 yen, about $120, and we were multiplying that by several times. Luckily, foreigners using chopsticks is interesting here, so foreigners doing works of charity is astonishing enough to balance out three different strains of influenza. I asked Mrs. Rieko Mizumoto, an orange farmer who hosted me for my first three days in town, if the Tamana International Society could help us out. They agreed and pitched in $600 from local government coffers. Mrs. Mizumoto also called friends with the state daily paper and the local branch of the Asahi Shinbun, a national paper. Azwi and I brought boxes of materials to an English conversation class at which we volunteer. The journalists took pictures of us and interviewed Azwi, and a few weeks later, we had a big color story in the middle of Kumamoto’s Saturday edition! My phone blew up, and we drew enough donations from that story to cover the difference. We’re supposed to appear in the Asahi Shinbun and a JET newsletter later, and Azwi is going on a radio program later this month. Az hasn’t been around computers enough for his brain to reshape itself to conform with Windows, so I handle the emails and Paypal account.
I became one of the only foreigners besides Barack Obama to appear in the state newspaper. Then, a week later, I was on TV! Well, my laugh was. In February, I went to Osaka with the other junior high school teachers (the male teachers – all the women stayed home to take care of their kids). We sat in the front row of the Yoshimoto comedy program in Osaka. The first half of the show, a series of two-man standup routines, was mostly too quick and Kansai-accented for me to understand, but the second half, a one-act play, was easy to pick up. It was a 20-character Oscar Wilde-style mistaken-identity number, and I had a great time. (“Hahaha – OMG I understand what they’re saying so HA HA HA!”) I was so loud that when that show ran on national TV last month, and one of the other teachers watched it, he could hear me. So now millions of Japanese people know that someone in their country is causing minor earthquakes with the girth of his mirth. Do they know it’s a foreigner? Do laughs have accents?
So there we have it. I’m on the map. I’ll be back in the papers, even if it’s as the subject of one of those stories about an 80-year old guy doing a crazy time-consuming hobby in his free time, even if all the newspapers go out of business! (Oh, wait…) I wish you the best, and congratulations to ye graduates, especially ye Duke students who are at commencement this very moment! Later this week, I’ll write you about mainland China, which I visited from April 30th to May 8th. It was nuts.
P.S. This is my translation of the news story.
Caption: Tamana City Assistant Language Teacher Azwinndini Ratshionya (34) is collecting and sending school supplies to elementary schools in Zimbabwe, the neighbor of his home country of South Africa. With the help of others, he has collected about 20 boxes of pens, notebooks, and so on, some of which he has already shipped.
Story, read Up to Down, Right to Left: Big-bodied and bright-spirited, called “Great Teacher Az” by parents and children alike, he has been teaching English in Japan in the same city since July 2004, at schools like Gyokuryo Junior High and Umebayashi Elementary.
Mr. Az’s home state of Limpopo shares a border with Zimbabwe. Last December, while he was visiting his home, cholera and influenza spread throughout Zimbabwe. Azwi met many children who had illegally entered South Africa to work in the farms for food.
“In Japan, you get the feeling that education is very important, no matter what grade level.” One month after he returned to Japan, he asked for help from schools, teachers, and other ALTs like James Smyth, and he asked for school supplies and donations from schools and city offices.
Mr. Az will return to his home country when he finishes his term at the end of July. “Everyone in Tamana has been so kind. Even one notebook or one pen can change a child’s life,” he says.
The group has spent enough money to send 12 boxes of materials so far, with the help of the Tamana International Society, on a ship traveling through the month of March. They are still trying to collect about 90,000 yen. Cash or checks are accepted. You can call 0968-72-2597 to help.
P.P.S. Ironically, the most famous ALT of all time is also a large black man who goes by the name “Az,” but this is short for “Azrael,” a name that comes from comic books rather than God’s country, which gives you a clue about how they’re different. It’s Jeffrey Windham, who started writing “I Am a Japanese School Teacher” for Something Awful and has continued for years. Jeff’s blog is PG-13, and also hilarious, and it made me more interested in coming to Japan. If you’d like to read it, it’s best to start from the beginning.