Training for disaster response in paradise

By Cate Keville in Kiribati

Coming in to land on the small island of Tarawa I saw what looked like a totally amazing Pacific paradise. That was from the air - not so much from the ground! Already tired from getting up at 2am for the flight from Nadi, the heat hit me first, then the surroundings. I saw what, to me, looked like total poverty, shacks of varying descriptions and sizes, dogs, rubbish, dust, dirt, car wrecks everywhere. It was my first mission as a New Zealand Red Cross delegate, and already I felt so alone and tired and wondered why I had ever thought I could do this.

My phone wasn’t working and Tiraen, the Kiribati Red Cross First Aid Officer, helped me buy a SIM card and top up the credit (I couldn’t pick it up until after 3pm as they had none left), but in one short, weepy phone call back to my husband in New Zealand it was all used up. The phone was my lifeline right then and I was desperate to find a shop that sold more credit. Fortunately one of the volunteers at Kiribati Red Cross went and got some for me.

I did have internet at the motel, but while I could receive emails, I couldn’t send any for three days. I was so worried because I couldn’t send the required ‘safe and well’ message to Aaron, the coordinator of the delegate programme at New Zealand Red Cross. In the end I got my husband to do it from New Zealand!

The negative feelings started to diminish quite quickly. All the staff and volunteers at Kiribati Red Cross Society were amazing. They helped and supported me and every day for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea the cook (who they called “Cooker” but whose real name was Kiebu) fed me beautiful local specialties such as chicken curry, raw fish curry, chicken drumsticks, and doughnuts (my favourite).

I was in Kiribati to train 13 Red Cross first aid volunteers: 6 current instructors and 7 new instructors. They were so keen and eager to learn and so dedicated. They worked hard every single day.

It was exhausting teaching in the late 20’s early 30’s C heat. I hadn’t experienced it before so my ability to keep energised, upbeat and focused waned at times. But whenever the class was feeling a bit flat they sang. They were some of the most beautiful harmonies I have heard and afterwards we found ourselves ready for another session.

Over the week their confidence improved, their English improved, and their knowledge improved. They had to do three different presentations over the week on a variety of First Aid topics. I was blown away how some used local resources to help the class understand a concept. For example one of my favourite students used a flower with a long stem to describe the brain and spinal cord. Genius! They gave me many ideas and in turn I challenged them, made them laugh, confused them at times, but we got through a fantastic programme. They were a total inspiration and a joy to teach. 

During my daily 20 minute drive to the Red Cross headquarters I started to see the beauty in the place. I noticed things I hadn’t seen the day before like people out most days sweeping up the fallen leaves and rubbish outside and around their home, a bakery, a sign advertising Red Cross, all the washing hanging to dry – I have no idea how they get their whites so white! I could see past the squalor and the health issues and notice the pride and resilience people have. The scenery, in places, is stunning.

Before I left I went to a local church service and was so glad I had experienced it – the singing, dancing and the faith that everything was going to be alright. Kiribati is sinking due to rising sea levels but the people here love their country and don’t want to leave. 

My students farewelled me at a four-hour function where they sang, danced, and made heartfelt speeches. We shared our last meal and they sang me a song they composed especially for me. I left Kiribati sure that my ‘babies’ would continue their journey towards becoming confident, capable and professional instructors. I will miss them.

Cate Keville's training and trip to Kiribati was undertaken through the New Zealand Red Cross delegate programme, with donor support provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's NZ aid programme. The New Zealand Red Cross delegates programme has been running since 1960.