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A celebration of change in tropical Kiribati

Of every 1000 children under five in Kiribati, 47 will die, often from entirely preventable causes. But that's changing.

Any decent celebration deserves cake, and a celebration in tropical Kiribati is no different.

But delivering a cake aboard a boat can be difficult. It slid around on the boat and the detailed icing was melting in the heat. It had been prepared in South Tarawa for the Ceremony on Maiana Island, so it would been disastrous to have ended as a pile on the floor of our vessel.

It was a special day. For almost three years the Ministry of Education and UNICEF have been supporting 36 schools (and approx. 4,800 pupils) in four outer islands – North Tarawa, Abaiang, Maiana, and Marakei. These populations have been working towards Open Defecation Free status within communities and gaining three-star ratings for the water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and practices in their schools - work made possible thanks to funding from MFAT and the generous donors of UNICEF NZ.

Achieving for children

One star is a good achievement. Two stars -the aim for all schools in the programme - is excellent. For a school to achieve three stars is exceptional. Three of the schools we were there to celebrate had reached that exceptional achievement.

It is an issue of vital importance. Of every 1,000 children under five in Kiribati, 47 of them will die, often from entirely preventable causes. Kiribati’s high rate of child mortality is mainly due to diarrhoea, caused by inadequate access to clean water, appropriate sanitation and good hygiene practices. The lack of appropriate sanitation inKiribati is often described as a “crisis” in terms of the risk it poses to public health and the country’s scarce freshwater resources. Schools in most of the outer Islands rely on unsafe drinking water from open wells, and adequate sanitation facilities are largely non-existent.

Our celebration ceremony took place in Tematantongo Village’s maneaba - the large meeting house in the middle of every village. As I ducked down low to enter the building, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dark after being in the bright sun. There were already hundreds of people there and despite the shade of the large roof it was extremely hot. The leaders in our group were ushered to sit in the front row on mats alongside the Minister ofEducation, while village elders sat in a square around the main raised area.The women from the Ministry of Education handed me a flower wreath to put on my head, intricately woven with many small flowers and leaves.

As the ceremony began schools were invited one at a time to receive their certificates, and the audience cheered loudly for each one. In Kiribati, the school is at the heart of the community. So, this wasn’t just schools being praised, it was entire communities, and the ongoing efforts of everyone within them.

Children are now aware of the dangers of open defecation, schools had been provided with adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and the communities had taken ownership of that ongoing maintenance and knowledge.

The ceremony concluded with music, and village elders inviting us to dance with them. I was trying to hold my sarong from falling down while dancing, much to the amusement of the audience. My friends from the Ministry of Education came up and put perfume and talcum powder on people’s necks or feet, which I later discovered was what you did to show you were impressed with someone’s dancing.

After the dancing, the floor was cleared and plate after plate of food came out, filling the whole room. Although there was a very festive mood, we had to hurry, as we had to get on the boat to get back to Tarawa before sundown. As we left, a group of about twenty children lined the beach to farewell us.

It had been a wonderful celebration. But unlike a birthday celebration – quick and fleeting – this was a celebration of change. It was a celebration of knowing that an entire community has embraced vital change and knowing that generations of children will have a better chance at health and happiness.

Amy Shanks is a Programmes Coordinator for UNICEF NZ