Getting in the game with Tanzania

A municipal official in northern Japan is working to build bridges between his country and Tanzania ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games. His city, Nagai, will host the Tanzanian national teams. The official has a unique connection to both countries making his work resonate on a personal level.

A junior high in Yamagata prefecture gave a warm welcome to Tanzania’s ambassador to Japan.

“Please support them when they come, give them all the assistance that they need, teach them your culture,” said Tanzanian Ambassador Mathias Meinrad Chikawe. The city of Nagai will host the Tanzanian national teams. Municipal official Masaki Suzuki helped coordinate the event.

“I hope our participation will help Tanzanian athletes better prepare for the Olympics and Paralympics,” he says. His father is Japanese. His mother, Tanzanian. Since Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 games, he’s been working to serve as a bridge between the two countries.

These days, he lives with his mother, Lulu. His father, Yoichi, died 10 years ago. In the 1980s, he moved to Tanzania as a volunteer teacher of auto mechanics. Lulu was working there at the office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Eventually they married and moved to Nagai.

“Nagai is a great place to live. I have no desire to go anywhere else,” says Lulu.

Since Yoichi’s death, Lulu took on various jobs to support the family. Suzuki’s two older sisters and younger brother became independent. Suzuki himself went off to college and returned home once he had graduated.

One major aspect of the city’s plan is hosting Tanzania’s world-renowned long-distance runners. Despite Suzuki’s background, the job won’t be easy.

He had only been to Tanzania once, and that was when he was in junior high. So, he’s needed to bring himself up to speed on customs and culture.

In October Suzuki joined the mayor in a trip to Tanzania as part of a 20-member delegation. They went to Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.

The delegation discussed Nagai’s proposal with the Sports Ministry. The mayor explained the plan, using materials Suzuki had prepared.

“We would like to support your athletes and managers in all sorts of ways when they are training and getting ready for the games,” said Nagai Mayor Shigeharu Uchiya.

The appeal met with success. An agreement in principle was made to sign a memorandum designating Nagai as the host city.

The visit also brought an unexpected bonus: a meeting with one of Tanzania's top runners. Juma Ikangaa is a three-time Olympian. He has won the New York Marathon and the Beijing International Marathon.

He offered to run in an annual marathon held in Nagai, an ideal way of highlighting the friendship between the city and his country.

“I hope to be able to help satisfy all of their needs,” says Suzuki.

The city has gotten off to a good start, but a marathon of work remains to be done, up to the games of 2020.