our work overseas

Changing lives in the Pacific with soap and water

In Kiribati, UNICEF's work is putting children on the path to prosperity

It’s a cliché to say that the people of a nation are friendly, but in Kiribati, it is a way of life.

There is nowhere else in the world I have been to like it. Kiribati is flat – unbelievably so, with the sea stretching out on either side for what seems like forever.

And the children shriek with joy as they launch themselves into the water that defines and surrounds this island nation.

Welcome to Kiribati.

An island nation

In June, we travelled to visit the Wash in Schools Project in Maiana and attended a ceremony for schools who had reached “3Stars” – the best of the best.

It was 5am when we arrived at the jetty to meet Ministry of Education staff, including the Minister of Education. Despite then waiting a few more hours for the boat to arrive, there was an air of excitement about going to visit this UNICEF project on one of Kiribati’s outer islands.

As we boarded the boat we were welcomed with a safety briefing and a prayer from one of the staff. Within fifteen minutes of leaving South Tarawa, the land was no more – just open sea. I was glad for my lifejacket and was imagining what it would be like for the locals to travel so regularly in the big swell without any lifejackets.

It was low tide when we arrived. The long, shallow shores of Maiana Island meant it took us an hour to slowly get the boat close to shore before we could be loaded into a dinghy. We waded the last part of the journey through shallow water, keeping a close eye out for the jagged corals. How different it is for our own Ministry of Education to visit schools in New Zealand

The Kiribati WASH in Schools Project began in January 2015 with support from NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade  Aid programme and New Zealand general public donations. For almost four years the project has provided water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems to four outer islands of the Gilbert group inKiribati:  Abaiang, Maiana, Marakei andNorth Tarawa, benefiting almost 3,000 girls, boys and teachers from 32 schools.Over that time water and sanitation systems have been steadily improved, and children taught clean and safe behaviour around toilet use, drinking safe water, hand-washing and menstrual hygiene. Because of this project, access to water at school has increased from 4 per cent to 30 per cent, and access to sanitation facilities from 3 per cent to 33 per cent.

We were greeted ashore by two lines of children proudly holding Kiribati flags aloft in the breeze. We later learned that they had been up since 5am preparing their school for our visit!

Community pride

A breakfast of bread, donuts and water had been prepared, under a shaded hut built during the project. An additional outcome of the project was while building the WASH facilities, some communities also improved other areas of the school. As we ate and rested, the head teacher greeted and thanked us and the children began performances.

The children proudly showed off their work as they guided us around the school. The improvements were very simple - hand washing facilities with soap, boys’ and girls’ toilets, facilities which included mirrors, toothbrushes and paste and posters with sanitation and hygiene messages. A child in New Zealand may not have considered this to be anything unusual, but for all of these children this was new, and they were thrilled.

The whole school was beautiful, not just the water and sanitation facilities, but also the classrooms and outdoor areas. The pride that the community felt in their school was evident, and the value of this work was deeply understood by all.

Fewer children will be getting sick. Fewer children with end up stunted as a result. Children, particularly girls will be more inclined to stay in school. And teachers and children will enjoy their school environment more.

This work goes beyond soap and water. It is about learning at school, education being made accessible for all, and ensuring a healthy, welcoming environment where children’s futures are made brighter –stretched out in front of them like that constant Kiribati horizon.

Amy Shanks is a Programmes Coordinator for UNICEF NZ