“Welcome back to Yemen!” This is what I have heard so many times from the friendly faces since I arrived in Sana’a at the end of July 2006. I have lived in Sana’a, the capital of the Republic of Yemen, before, while working for the Japanese Embassy as an administrative assistant from 1999 to 2001. At that time, I was a new graduate from a college in Japan, in my early 20’s, and nothing could stop me from being curious about every single part of the Yemeni people’s lives. My pure curiosity, and probably my naiveté, greatly helped me mingle with the local people. I was invited to parties at diplomats’ residences as well as local family gatherings, even with female family members. People I met in Yemen during those 2 years were so kind, warm and welcoming that the good experiences I had in this country have been unforgettable and imprinted in my consciousness.
With a Master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Arab Studies (MAAS) program, I’m having my second experience living here in Sana’a, and working as a development programs coordinator at the Japanese Embassy. I deal with grass-roots and human security projects which are acutely needed not only in rural villages but also in cities in this country. Every year the Embassy receives more than 140 applications from local schools, community development groups, local NGOs, grass-roots charity organizations and local government-funded entities. Only around 40 projects among them are chosen for in-depth research, and usually only half of them are successfully funded. I am involved in the selection process, in-depth research, collection of all the necessary information and writing an official application to Tokyo, as well as follow-up visits to the past projects that were funded by the Japanese government. I can say that I am deeply involved in all the processes and I am playing the role of coordinator between local people and the Japanese government before and after the implementation of projects.
I had a chance to visit several new candidate project sites to interview applicant organizations and check the sustainability and the feasibility of the candidate projects. The projects varied from providing garbage trucks and cleaning fund in a touristy city to providing medical equipment and an ambulance to a local clinic that deals with maternal and child healthcare in a remote area. I could easily see the seriousness of purpose in their projects when I had conversations with the applicants.
I recently conducted follow-up visits to two past projects. One was building a schoolhouse in an isolated area, and another was providing medical equipment to a rather big public hospital. The schoolhouse was used well, but the restrooms that were supposed to be used by both students and teachers were only allowed for teachers to use. Thus, the male students go outside when they need, and female students even have to go back home which is, in most cases, far away from the school. I thought it was a problem since this situation severely discourages female kids from going to school. It seems that the teachers, including the principal of the school, have other priorities.
When I visited the hospital that received the medical equipment for the Embassy, I found the equipment was maintained very well and it even seemed that they were not used much. I asked the hospital director if they used the equipment for daily examinations, and he said they did. But later, one doctor told me that this equipment provided by the Japanese government was too expensive and precious to use for regular patients. Therefore, doctors use them only for taking care of special people, such as influential individuals and high-ranking government officials. I was astonished when I heard this fact because the funding scheme by the Embassy especially targets grassroots projects and the funding is to be used for the benefit of all people, not just influential people nor government officials.
I am currently doing research on a project for building an elementary school for girls in a remote village in the southern part of Yemen. How remote, you ask? The project site is takes several hours from the nearest city by a pickup truck. Why a pickup truck? Pick up trucks are required because the road to the village is mountainous and roads so rocky only pickup trucks can handle the drive. In addition, there is no health center or clinic for residents of the village. If sudden health problems occur, such as bleeding, unbearable pain, or a change in the health conditions related to pregnancy, many people lose their life on the way to the closest health clinic located hours from their village. As a result, people die from injuries or diseases that are not necessarily fatal in other parts of the world. There are so many things that can be done to reduce the suffering of people and save lives in this area – and overall in this country – all with a relatively small budget.
In the MAAS program, my concentration was economics and development, so I took several classes that dealt with development. I learned very much from the classes, but when I stand on the actual field of development, I realize that there is so much more to learn beyond the classroom. Every process of implementing projects is a new lesson for me. Sometimes I am gripped by a sense of powerlessness when facing the reality that what I can do is rather small, but sincerely enjoy learning something new every day I am in Yemen. And, of course, the beautiful architecture in the old city of Sana’a, the long history and distinctive traditions which still stay alive in the heart of the people in Yemen makes me realize how important the small steps really are.