The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts through the Machinaka Yumekobo bakery in Fukushima City. The loaves have become famous in the city for two reasons: they are exceptionally tasty, and because every loaf sold includes a donation that pays for a child’s meal in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
The link between Fukushima and the African city nearly 12,000 kilometers away is Towari Marie Louise, who fled the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s and found refuge in Japan.
Towari believed that education was the key to achieving peace in her native country, so she began raising money to fund an elementary school.
"I wanted a school where children from poor families get the opportunity to have an education and can dream about their future regardless of their background,” she says.
By the year 2001, she had the funds and opened the Umuco Mwiza School, offering places for about 400 children. Towari was hoping to mark the school’s 20th anniversary last year with a series of events.
But when COVID-19 reached Rwanda, the government ordered a national lockdown that lasted months. For the students, it wasn’t just lessons they were missing out on. Many of them relied on school lunches to survive. Some resorted to begging for food on the streets. Though classes have resumed for some grades, many parents are finding it impossible to pay the fees, and that, in turn, means the school is struggling for income.
Instead of hosting celebrations to thank people in Japan for backing the school, Towari had to ask for help one more time. She says she felt ashamed to reach out again, but her priority is to keep children off the streets. “If the school doesn't survive, 220 children will have nowhere to go,” she worries.
Fukushima resident Yoshinari Hirohaku was one of the people who responded to her call. He had known her for years, and their bond became stronger when they both volunteered to support evacuees in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.
"She has been growing together with us in Fukushima, dedicating herself to people here,” he says. "Now that she’s in trouble, we want to do everything we can to support her.”
Yoshinari launched a social media campaign to solicit donations and organized a video conference.
"It’s not just about school meals, it’s about the very survival of the school. When I got the SOS from Marie Louise I thought something so unusual must be happening that it gave me goose bumps."
The campaign has raised about $18,000 so far, which means the school can implement the government-mandated anti-virus measures such as a hand-washing station, but it’s still short of what’s needed to pay for other essentials, including teachers' salaries.
Towari says she is so full of gratitude that she doesn’t know how to put her feeling into words. Yoshinari suggests one word, that he says is a favorite of both of them: otagaisama, meaning, roughly, "that's what friends are for."
He says he's determined to repay Towari for the bond she has been forging between the people of Rwanda and Japan.