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Kayo Oda left a safe career to teach Sudanese how to avoid land mines

She makes treks along nameless unmarked paths to conduct lifesaving land-mine safety meetings. Getting lost happens frequently because of the ever-shifting sands.

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    Japanese aid worker Kayo Oda meets with children at Tchotiai Basic School in Kassala, Sudan.
    Courtesy of Kayo Oda
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Summertime in Sudan brings a particularly intense form of heat, a parching, ovenlike blast that seems to come from all angles.

In her modest apartment set among low-slung, sunbaked buildings in a quiet residential area in Kassala, near the border with Eritrea, Kayo Oda gamely fights to stay cool, a ceiling fan providing little help against the sweltering heat. Such is life for the young Japanese aid worker who now calls Sudan home.

It is a far cry from her former home in Tokyo’s tony Shibuya Ward. Having left her plush life behind, Ms. Oda now pursues her passion: to save lives by bringing land-mine awareness programs to a remote corner of northeastern Sudan.

She regularly makes treks along nameless unpaved roads to villages to conduct lifesaving land-mine safety meetings, often relying on the local driver’s memory to follow the right unmarked path. Getting lost is still a frequent occurrence because of a landscape of ever-shifting sands.

Her modest, unassuming approach earns the confidence and respect of the villagers she meets – and also pays dividends in ensuring the cooperation of a sometimes labyrinthine Sudanese bureaucracy.

Oda’s path to Kassala was a circuitous one. Born in Hiroshima, Japan, to a Ministry of Finance official and a homemaker, Oda has long had an international perspective for which she credits a high school homestay in rural Kentucky.

“My host family provided unconditional love to a strange Japanese girl and did everything they could to make me feel at home,” Oda says via a telephone conversation. Armed with a naturally inquisitive and independent spirit, she pursued degrees at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario; volunteered at an orphanage in Venezuela; and spent six months in an intensive Chinese language course in China’s Liaoning Province.

Eager to supplement her education with real-world experience, Oda joined a Japanese conglomerate in 2009 as a consultant in its Tokyo headquarters. The work paid well – and Oda admits she enjoyed her time as “a privileged white-collar worker.” But the corporate culture of Japan left her feeling empty.

She resigned in early 2014 and began to explore nonprofit opportunities, soon joining the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan.

Founded in 1979, AAR Japan is a fastidiously nonpolitical, nondenominational nongovernmental organization specializing in land-mine education, public health, and disaster relief. Operating in 15 countries, AAR Japan is well regarded by its international peers.

Indeed, since 2009 the government of Sudan has suspended or expelled 17 Western aid organizations, including the Red Cross. But AAR Japan has avoided such sanctions – its understated Japanese approach serving it well to date.

After splitting time between Karachi, Pakistan, and Tokyo, Oda volunteered to join AAR Japan’s Sudan operation in Kassala where she now heads its land-mine education team.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the city in Pakistan where Oda once worked.]

Racked by decades of civil war, Sudan has a legacy of land mines and other explosive remnants of warfare. The northeastern region near the Eritrean border has been particularly affected, with Kassala registering the highest number of land-mine incidents in the region and the second highest overall in the country.

To date, the government of Sudan and international partners have cleared some 36 square miles of land mines and unexploded ordnance. But more than two square miles of affected land still remains near Kassala.

To that end, Oda’s work focuses on education about mines. AAR Japan holds about 500 seminars each year to teach villagers how to identify unexploded mines and what to do when munitions are discovered. Skits and storytelling are used with schoolchildren – a group particularly susceptible to harm from land mines and other explosives.

For Oda, some days are spent at a desk in an airless office – air conditioning eschewed to avoid sharp changes in temperature for those moving in and out of the building – handling the voluminous paperwork needed to coordinate operations. Power outages are common at the office, and she often finds herself dashing home through the heat to file reports (a well-worn generator maintains an Internet connection at her building).

But Oda did not move 6,200 miles from her friends and family only to shuffle paper. When she visits more conservative villages, she dons an abaya, the traditional full-body covering of the region. It’s “an icebreaker,” she notes with some irony, speaking of the garment. But villagers appreciate the respect it shows for their local customs.

Winning people over through small gestures is one of Oda’s strong suits, says veteran Sudanese aid worker Yousif Jubara. The lanky AAR Japan field officer praises Oda’s ability to quickly ingratiate herself with locals. She also shows a humility that has endeared her to fellow aid workers. Indeed, Oda is quick to play down her role in Sudan, preferring to speak of her colleagues’ contributions.

Such actions come as no surprise to Takashi Ujikawa, AAR Japan’s director of operations in Sudan. “She is a fascinating person,” Mr. Ujikawa says from his office in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, noting her ability to navigate the Sudanese bureaucracy. During Oda’s tenure in Kassala, relations with local authorities have become noticeably more efficient – requests that once took weeks to process are now handled in a matter of days, Ujikawa says. “They trust her.”

Some critics dismiss “soft projects” like land-mine education. As an awareness campaign it provides intangible, long-term benefits not easily quantified. But land-mine safety classes can lead to fewer instances of people being wounded or killed, even though they lack the visual impact of traditional “hard projects” like a dam or highway.

Due in no small part to the efforts of Oda and others, some 490,000 residents of Kassala have received mine-risk education training to date, with the state recording no land-mine casualties in 2015, according to the latest figures.

Habibulhaq Javed, the United Nations Mine Action Service representative in Sudan, believes in the value of her work. “Victim assistance and mine-risk education are important pillars of mine action,” Mr. Javed has said. While the government focuses on mine clearance, mine-risk education reduces the number of those maimed or killed by mines still in the ground.

Oda sees her work as the outgrowth of an empathy for others she developed as a child. She recalls how even seeing her little sister trip and fall as a youngster could bring her to tears. “Therefore,” she writes in an e-mail, “it was natural for me to consider the problems of people in the developing world as ‘my’ problem.”

Sitting in her office on a recent Saturday, overseeing a team of local artists who are creating a new signboard for AAR Japan’s Kassala branch, Oda says she’s hopeful about Sudan’s future. In spite of the challenges, the Sudanese government and its partners are making progress in land-mine clearance: Kassala itself has seen nearly 15 square miles of land cleared, and the UN estimates the area will be mine-free by the end of 2016.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the time when the UN estimates Kassala will be cleared of land mines.]

In the meantime, Oda and her team have begun a new “community-based” program to train local officials to carry on AAR Japan’s work after its land-mine campaign comes to a close. It is an initiative that Oda hopes will both empower local residents and allow Sudan to move toward a landmine-free future.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help in Sudan or South Sudan or help in land-mine-affected areas.

International Medical Corps is a global, humanitarian organization that provides health-care training and development programs. Take action: Provide medical supplies to midwives in Afghanistan and Sudan.

The John Dau Foundation supplies health care in war-torn South Sudan by building medical clinics and training health workers. Take action: Contribute toward buying an ambulance.

Globe Aware helps individuals and communities prosper without becoming dependent on outside aid. Take action: Volunteer in Cambodia, an area greatly affected by unremoved land mines.

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