North Malaita

While many visitors to the Solomons may think that Honiara or Guadalcanal is the centre of it all, there is actually one Province that is much more populous, and with a much bigger personality:  Malaita.

It took me a while to make it to Malaita, but with our sanitation project moving to North Malaita soon, and an offer from one of the Paramount Chiefs to stay in his village, I couldn’t really say no.

3 -4 October – The Journey to Oroe

I joined 10 other friends and together, we boarded the Awka ship for the 6 hour “overnight” journey.   This was my first long-distance boat journey in Solomons and it was as much an experience as I expected it to be.

Although the boat didn’t leave until 6pm, it was prudent to get there at 4pm to snag the best spot. Having a reasonable income, we were able to afford the 1st class ticket, which meant we didn’t have to squish with hundreds of others on a dirty, metal floor in the hold of the boat.  Instead, we headed to the air-conditioned area upstairs, and nabbed a corner of the room where we could lay down our yoga mats and try our best to sleep through the sickening, rolling motion, and the sound of the waves smashing against the rusty metal hull.

We arrived in Auki, the capital of Malaita, just after midnight.  After taking about an hour to get us, and our ludicrous amounts of luggage off the boat, we then we made our way to a pre-arranged 3-tonne truck waiting at the wharf.  The guys did a great job at piling our luggage high, and then piling people in all around it.  There were 12 of us fitting into a space of about 1.5 x 2metres in the tray (on a mattress), while about 20 locals fit into the other half of the truck.

Of course, our truck was just one of about 50 parked haphazardly at the wharf, and we had to wait patiently for another 1.5 hours just to get out of the traffic jam.  This gave us plenty of time to purchase some fresh Arabella Pineapples and mangoes for the 5-hour journey North.

We finally got moving at 2:30am, and the first thing I noticed about driving in an open truck at 3am in the morning in Malaita, is that it was cold!  Yes, that strange sensation that I haven’t felt for a while.

The next thing I noticed was that the bumpy road really made me need to go to the toilet.  Politely, the truck stopped and turned off its headlights as we scattered to the road edge and did our best to quickly do our business (no number 2s!) before getting caught in the headlights of other passing trucks.

Despite our relative comfort, sleep eluded me, so I was quite grateful as the sun began to rise and I finally got to see Malaita for the first time.  I was greeted by thick jungle on one side, and sand beaches on the other, so calm and picturesque in the subtle dawn light.


I also noticed very few bottleshops advertised.  When I asked the Chief about this, I quickly discovered that Malaita (especially North Malaita) is very strictly and traditional.  A number of villages are dry (loosely enforced) and women must never buy alcohol.  Women must also wear skirts, never touch a man’s hair, or step over anyone’s legs or food (apparently, because they might be menstruating).

We arrived at Oroe village at around 7am (For the nerds:  GPS -8.390683, 160.731443).  Children half my size assisted in carrying our grotesque amount of belongings to the Chief’s house, where we crashed into slumber for a few hours until the searing mid-morning heat woke us up.


View from Oroe

After a bite to eat, the Chief led us down to the local river where we could wash off the truck ride’s dust, and the morning’s sweat.  The water was lovely, and we whiled away the hours attempting to skip stones, learn an underwater drumming technique (fail!), and catching tadpoles while the entire village nearby looked on in curiosity.


The rest of the afternoon we spent recuperating – by which I mean reading our book, making a vague plan for our stay, and cooking up a delicious dinner of Taro Coconut Soup.

5 October – The Clinic & Lau Lagoon

Despite this blog coming across as a holiday tale, the underlying purpose of this trip to Malaita was for work.  Those who accompanied me on the trip were all health professionals, and our first day in the village was spent providing a rural clinic and conducting health awareness.

I take it things like this don’t happen very often in this part of the world, as we had 60 people lined up by 9am.  As word got around, numbers increased and by lunchtime, we would have had around 200 people passing through.

While the doctors and nurses attended to the patients, the rest of us were thrust into doing some health education.  Naturally, I spent my time talking about sanitation and encouraging everyone to build a toilet and a nifty little tippy tap using a mineral water bottle – it never fails to impress!


However, the most fascinating revelation for me resulted from the diabetes education, where one listener asked if it is good to smoke to stop diabetes.  After all, “smoking stop hunger and diabetes is linked to eating too much”.  While we know this to be incorrect, I couldn’t fault the logic, and his question gave me one of those jolting reminders to be ultra-careful of how our simplified promotional messaging can potentially lead to other damaging behaviour.

Sadly, things didn’t get any better from here, and the misinterpreted messaging continued on a slippery downward slope.   This new realisation that smoking could lead to diabetes led to an interest among listeners about how to quit.  Great!  Based on this interest, my well-meaning colleague offered to provide personal quit advice to those who were serious.  Okay.

In the end, what resulted was the village representative (not the Chief) getting the loudspeaker and demanding that “all smokers go immediately to the School for Smokers”.  I observed people dobbing in their friends, neighbours and family members, sending them to the School for Smokers, where the village had set up a wooden plank for now-maligned smokers to sit on – like a line of prisoners awaiting a firing squad.  As visitors, we couldn’t question the actions of the village leader, so we just had to go along with it and do our best to minimise the expectations and the damage.  Eish!


School for Smokers (note the loudspeaker)

After lunch, we needed a break and decided to head to Manaoba Island on Lau Lagoon.  We piled back into the back of the 3-tonne truck, and took a 30 minute ride to Lagoon Dwellers Lodge.  There, the Chief sorted some boats to take us across the lagoon to a sand beach.  The boat ride was slow due to the low tide, strong wind and thick seaweed.  It was this thick seaweed that brought in the dugong that some people saw from the boat (not me!).  Instead, my eyes were glued to the artificial islands built up by hand from limestone, looking for indications of how the islands’ residents deal with the issues of water and sanitation – I am such a nerd.

The boat dropped us at a beautiful sand beach, where turquoise water spread out as far as the eye could see.  There was no coral to look at, and the water was like a hot bath, but it was a pleasant place to make a splash and relax for the afternoon.


In the late afternoon, the boat returned to collect us and as we made our way back across the windy lagoon I spied something amazing:  windsurfing.  Sort of.  The locals had rigged up a sail to their wooden canoes using black tarp, and were standing in the canoes adjusting the sails to the wind to take them between islands.  This is the first place in the country where the wind appeared consistent and strong enough to facilitate any form of wind-based water sport.  It was a beautiful site, and made me wish for a kite!

With everyone back on the mainland, we piled back into the 3-tonne for the journey home.  A grey cloud threatened to shower us on the way home, but instead produced a beautiful rainbow that extended across the silhouette of coconut trees in the sunset.


We made it back to the village after dark, presenting a unique challenge (especially with my gammy foot) to hike along a slippery, rocky and clay, path back to the house.

6 October – Adaua Secondary School

The next day we planned to go up to to Adaua School to do more work in our respective fields.  Unfortunately, and in typical Solomons style, the primary teachers hadn’t shown up, so instead we spent the morning relaxing and reading.  However, secondary teachers were there, so around lunchtime (in the heat of the day!), we made the trek up to the school.

Adaua is a clean, big, boarding school perched on top of a hill, giving fantastic views of Lau lagoon and islands.  It came across as quite clean, organised, and a lovely place to work.  The secondary students, and teachers, were waiting for us in the hall, and we were given very little time to prepare what we were going to say and do.  The girls were sent off separately to discuss menstrual hygiene as part of Days for Girls project.  I was told to stick with the boys and talk about shit.

I quickly managed to get the Chief and students to recognise that when they go toilet all about, they end up eating their own faeces – always a party starter.  The doctor and pharmacist then talked about diabetes and safe use of medicines, followed by the two nurses who gave a course on CPR.  To end, groups of teachers were asked to come up and demonstrate what they had learned about CPR.  I had no idea what they were saying, but whatever it was, the students were in stitches.  In fact, the students were so engaged by this that during their lunchbreak, after the session had finished, we saw them on the stage practising.  Amazing!

After we had been released from our working obligations, we were taken on a walking tour through the school.  It was, indeed, a very clean school – at least until I went to investigate the ladies ablution blocks.  It was a disaster, with the large investment in toilets and showers flooded with 30cm of sewage from blocked drains.

The more I travel this country and look at toilet projects of the past, the more I think that the introduction of water-based toilets is the biggest hindrance to helping the people of this country access a safe place to shit.  The couple of hundred female boarders now use a single drop loo half way down the hill – vastly insufficient for their numbers, but clearly more hygienic and sustainable.

Back at the village, it was to be our last night in Oroe, so we spent the evening doing a gigantic cook-up of all the vegies kindly brought to us by the villagers, consumed against a backdrop of endless chorus from the Church.

7 October – The road to Auki

Big rain came overnight.  So when our alarms woke us at 4:30am, in time for our scheduled 5:30am departure, it was no surprise that no-one was stirring – not even the Chief!  After drifting in and out of sleep for another hour, listening closely for movement outside, I finally heard that the delay was due to concerns that the river crossing may be flooded.

At 7am, we finally headed off, by which time the rain had stopped.  In my short stay here, I had noticed that the weather here is more unpredictable than anything in Melbourne.  In the space of 24 hours, you can have bucketing rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun.

The river crossing was achieved safely by getting us all to jump out of the truck so that it could pass along a very old and unstable bridge.  We also experienced a flat tyre around the time that I needed to stop and pee (although this gave a very painful lesson that peeing in the Solomons jungle can result in red ant bites on your behind).  Other than this, the journey was quite enjoyable, with a mattress to sit on, clouds hovering overhead for the entire trip making everything much cooler and bearable, and surplus amounts of peanuts and bananas to keep us sated.


Given that the only other time I had been in Auki was at 1am, this was the first time I really got to see Auki in its “glory”.  First stop was Kilu’ufi hospital to catch up with colleagues, all who were extremely excited about CLTS coming to town, thankfully. I looked at their solid waste management facilities, which largely involved throwing everything into a ravine. I then had my bank card swallowed by the ATM, and discovered refreshing chocolate frozen bananas for sale in the secondhand clothing store.  And that, dear readers, is pretty much all I can say about Auki.

In the late afternoon, our travel group parted ways, with 5 of us extending our stay by heading to Langa Langa Lagoon for the weekend, and the rest heading back to Honiara.


Categories: Exploring, Work | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Hats off to Isabel!

No, this is not a self-congratulatory post.  At least not completely.

After returning from Australia – where the sun shone daily, the streets were clean, the internet was fast and people turned up to work – I fell into a slump back in Honiara – where the sun shone daily, the dust from the streets stuck to my sweat, the internet barely functioned and work was merely a place people went in their spare time.

Slowly, slowly, things started to get back on track and, by the end of the year, I am pleased to say that Isabel has done it!  Of course, Isabel did not do it alone.  No, there are some really dedicated people here, and this blog goes out to them.

First major breakthrough was the completion of the baseline surveys for our handwashing campaign.  Using some statistical methodology that I learned many years ago at Uni, I calculated that we had to go as far west as Vaturanga and as far East as Ruavatu to do surveys.

I had heard that Ruavatu had a bit of a muddy road, so we got hold of the 4WD and off we went.  Little did I realise that the direct road to Ruavatu had actually been destroyed, so now we had to take an ultra-long inland road, climbing incredibly steep and muddy hills and crossing rather large rivers.  There were moments there where we definitely not in control of the vehicle, but I was very impressed by our driver’s ability to casually cruise through.

I was even more impressed by the team’s steadfastness when the wheel came entirely off the vehicle while driving east to Vaturanga.  They found most of the pieces, put it back together, slowly and safe made their way back to base, before grabbing another vehicle and heading out again.

Even back in Honiara, I was enthralled at the way my counterpart has managed to achieve the household surveys at a time when there are no cars, no fuel, no drivers, and everybody has gone on Christmas holidays.  He has artistically integrated the surveys into a response plan for the latest diarrhoea outbreak and it looks like he will actually achieve the deadline of completing surveys by Christmas.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

The second break for me came with my Annual Performance Assessment.  I won’t go into the details, but after all the challenges that I have encountered this year, it was heartening to hear that those efforts were recognised and appreciated.   Not only did I score incredibly high in my assessment, but I was also told that “having managed advisors for a very long time, it is rare to find a technical specialist who also has the ability to engage and work with the local people as you do”.  Awww.

The final win for the year was thanks to Isabel province.  You may recall a blog from a few months ago where we did an amazing CLTS triggering of Kolomola village in Isabel province.  Two weeks ago, I went to check on the progress.  Kolomola has made great progress and, with a few more handwashing facilities, is on track to become “No Open Defecation” (NOD) by Christmas.

More importantly, we also did a very sweaty, and very slippery, two-hour hike way up into the highlands of Isabel Province to look at Tirotonna village.  This village was triggered just after Kolomola, by some of the community members who attended our CLTS training.

After visiting every single household, I am extremely excited to announce that Solomon Islands now has its very first, verified “No Open Defecation” community.  This is a massive milestone, especially considering the widespread resistance to the non-subsidised approach, and the fact that no other village has achieved this since CLTS was first introduced in 2013.  Tirotonna did it in 3 months.

Not only is Tirotonna the first Solomon Islands village to achieve this feat, but they did it with style.  Walking around, I can honestly say that the level of thought and pride that has gone into these toilets and handwashing facilities rivals what I’ve seen anywhere else.


Apart from the Hyatt, where else would you find vases of freshly plucked flowers placed alongside handwashing facilities?  Tirotonna, that’s where!

Where would you find tropical flowers adorning the walls of the toilet and lining the path to the outhouse?  Tirotonna!

Where would you find such carpentry genius as to fix a rubber seal around the edge of a toilet lid to stop any possible chance of flies entering the hole?  Yep, Tirotonna.

And where else would you find the amazing craftsmanship of 20-metres of traditional bamboo plumbing just to ensure the handwashing tap is right outside your toilet?  You guessed it, Tirotonna!



This place needs to be seen to be believed, and when we celebrate their milestone in February, I really hope it is the non-believers who come to see.

So, from the depths of post-Australia depression, Solomon Islands has come up trumps and handed me some fantastic little Christmas presents.  As I head off to the Western Province, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Catch you in 2016.

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

Washim han blong iu!

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the blog front, lately.  There has been a good reason for this.  The very best reason.  Hand washing!!!!

Yep, I have had my head, arms and legs buried deep into the second of my major projects for the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Health – the development and launch of a National Handwashing Strategic Health Communication Plan.

Handwashing is one of those things that we take for granted.  As children, we are taught to wash our hands after the toilet, before eating, after eating, after blowing our noses, after playing with the dog/cat/bird/mice/guinea pigs/chickens, after gardening, after pretty much everything.

We are also taught the link between washing hands and disease – the fact that 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, and that handwashing with soap and water at key times can halve the number of diarrhoea-related deaths, not to mention cholera, dysentery, acute respiratory infections, trachoma, scabies, etc. etc.

Our love affair with handwashing is also demonstrated through our investment into aesthetically pleasing and super-user-friendly hand washing facilities – think soft lighting and strategically placed mirrors, carved and sweetly smelling soaps, artistically folded hand towels, motion-sensor liquid soap and faucets, or basins built into toilet cisterns for eco-friendly water conservation.

Despite this, some bored researcher discovered that 14% of banknotes in America are contaminated with faeces.  Either a whole lot of Americans (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) fail to wash their hands as they should, or there are a number of rich people who are running out of toilet paper and using the next best thing.  Either way, I have a newfound appreciation for my credit card.

The humble art of handwashing has been described as a self-administered vaccine.  But, in fact, handwashing with soap and water at critical times has proven to be more cost-effective than any single vaccine.  It is also more cost-effective than the distribution of malaria nets, the construction of sanitation, improvement of water, and every other public health intervention known to man (so far).

So why does the majority of the world’s people still fail to practice this one simple act?

Perhaps it is because handwashing is an action that needs to be repeated about 100,000 times during an average lifetime to be truly effective, unlike the single or triple dose of most vaccines.

Maybe it’s because handwashing is too subtle, unlike mosquito nets that tangle you up the second you climb into bed (with buzzing mosquitoes in the night to serve as an added reminder).

Possibly it’s just because handwashing isn’t sexy, unlike the sight of fresh, clean water flowing across the plump lips of a broadly smiling model.

Hopefully, this handwashing campaign will change that.  At least for the Solomon Islanders.

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

We officially launched the campaign last week on 15 October, as part of Global Handwashing Day celebrations.  Through a great team effort (I am so proud of the team), we held a large event at one of the rural schools, in a gorgeous setting sandwiched between the Pacific ocean and Visale’s towering hills.  We even managed to drag a number of VIPs from the comfort of their urban offices to participate.  In addition to speeches that actually stuck to time, we had great songs and dramas from the primary school children and San Isidro Care Centre – a school for the hearing impaired.

The event culminated in a mass handwashing activity, using home-made pressure taps from recycled 1.5L water bottles.  If you ever need proof that children actually like washing hands, then this was it.  The children were so keen that our guest speakers had to fight their way to the front to do the demonstration.  Naturally, as 800-hands got washed, chaos and hilarity ensued.

Let the handwashing begin!

Let the handwashing begin!

It is estimated that only 5-10% of the Solomon Islands population currently wash their hands with soap and water at key times – far fewer than the proportion of the population that have access to clean water, proper sanitation, mosquito nets, malaria treatment, iron-fortified salt, and a full course of government-subsidised vaccines.

The impact of this is obvious.  More than 34,000 cases of diarrhoea were recorded in the country’s health clinics in the last 12 months.  I’m sure that’s only a fraction of the real number, given that many cases don’t even make it to a health clinic.  This is despite local research showing high knowledge of the health impacts of washing hands.

The big gap lies in attitudes and, most importantly, practice.

For this reason, our national handwashing campaign will focus on improving the social norms around handwashing, and improve access to handwashing facilities at toilets and kitchens.

We hope to build habits young by targeting children aged 6-12 and the people most likely to influence their behaviour – peers, parents, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders, and popular media.

We also hope to do this through a long-term approach, starting with a two-year pilot and three-year scale-up.

Last week was just the beginning.  The biggest and the best is yet to come.

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Isabel (Part 2)

Once the excitement of Isabel being in Isabel subsided, it was time to focus on work.  I had joined a group of people from UNICEF Solomon Islands, Fiji and Kiribati to look at the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) program that was started in late 2014.

As with most work plans, our agenda for the trip was thrown out in the first five minutes and replaced with something far more relevant, and incredibly more ambitious.  Rather than simply monitoring the existing CLTS programs, we were going to train 10 representatives from 2 communities in the CLTS approach, and then put it into action with a complete Pre-Trigger, Trigger and Follow-Up of one community.

The challenge came with the fact that we had not prepared to do CLTS training and so did not have the appropriate resources.  Also that the CLTS training normally takes 5 days and we were to do it in 3 hours.  Oh, and that of the two people qualified to train in CLTS, neither one spoke Solomon Islands’ Pidjin.  Easy.

Full credit must go to the amazing community representatives, and the local staff from UNICEF, who accepted this challenge with great gusto.  They really underwent a baptism by fire, and came out only slightly singed and full of enthusiasm.  This chaotic and jam-packed program also reinvigorated my belief in the CLTS approach and reminded me of how much fun my work really can be.

It all started with the Pre-Triggering, where we sat down with the Chiefs, Catechist, Youth Leaders and Women’s leaders from Kolomola village.  We were there to introduce the program and arrange a time and date for the whole-of-community Triggering.  Any successful CLTS program starts with a successful Pre-Triggering, which means empowering the community leaders to really take the lead, and also getting them to agree on a crude local word for shit.  As we witnessed in Kolomola, this is not as easy as it sounds.

Strong culture dictates that the only way to respectfully discuss faeces is through respectful terminology, and despite our attempts to persuade them otherwise, there was little inclination to budge.  However, after multiple attempts, we had a “breakthrough moment” where they finally realised that shit is shit, and open shit is bad, and that bad open shit needs to be discussed openly if we want to stop it from being bad shit.  So, in stark contrast from the start of the meeting, we left Kolomola with its community leaders yelling out “Ta’e” – the Meninge word for shit.

The following day, we returned to Kolomola for the community-wide Triggering.  This is where the facilitators run through a series of activities that allow community members to realise that the current practice of open defecation ultimately results in them eating their own shit.  None of this is achieved through lecturing or teaching, though.  Nope, it is all based around probing questions and demonstrations that get people to reflect and come to their own conclusions.

Kolomola community didn’t miss a beat.  By the time the community had mapped their community and sites of open defecation, it didn’t take them long to recognise that they were eating shit.  In fact, the first testimony came from the Catechist:  “I speared a fish in the stream then bit its head off (apparently they do that here).  Then I smelled something funny and looked down and saw that I had just bitten into shit”.  From there, people were so determined to step forward and share their experience, that we had trouble stopping them.

What did stop them, was the entrance of the community’s 70-odd children chanting and asking why they were being forced to eat shit.  As the leader of the group stepped forward to recite a speech, tears welled and her voice broke, creating a pretty high impact message to those parents present.

From there it was the Shit Calculation (how much shit does your community produce in a year, and more importantly, where does it all go?), followed by the Medical Calculation (how much does it cost you to eat shit?).

Then it was the community walk to a site of open defecation.  This is always my favourite part.  This is where people are so disgusted by the sight and smell of shit, yet are so curious about it all, that they are pushing and shoving to get closer.  It is the pinnacle of CLTS, where the movement of flies between shit and a nearby plate of food really brings home the point that when we openly defecate we really do eat our own shit.

Hands up who wants to end Open Defecation?

Hands up who wants to end Open Defecation?

Kolomola Village was so triggered by the day’s activities that they vowed to become Open Defecation Free within 2 weeks.  As our team went to leave, the community lined up to shake our hands, tell us that “this is the best program we’ve seen”, and then sing and dance for us until we were long out of sight.  I really do love my job.

The next day we returned to Kolomola as part of a monitoring visit.  This immediate follow-up is essential to ensure the CLTS message stays strong, and to keep the community motivated and focused on their life-changing goal.  We were ecstatic to catch the Catechist in the process of digging his pit – one of four pits that had already been dug in the 24 hours since triggering.  It was a promising start.

Unfortunately, that’s all that time allowed for during my visit to Isabel.  However, I heard through my people on the ground that Kolomola has continued to dig pits, and that they are on track to meet their ODF date.  If they do this, they will be the first community in the country to be declared Open Defecation Free.  Now that’s some good shit!

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First trip to Central

After six weeks of waiting, waiting, waiting, funding was finally released for me to go to Tulaghi to prepare for our CLTS pilot program.  Already experiencing a month’s delay, I was eager to get on the boat.  Even when a low pressure system threatened that eagerness, I unwaveringly persevered with travel plans.

On the planned day of departure I was up early and down at the wharf ready to go.  I was also starting at an empty jetty.  It seems a malfunctioning engine had put the boat trip on hold for a while.  Sensing my desperation not to delay the program any further, the company offered to take us over on an OBM.  I hurriedly agreed.

OBM stands for Outboard Motor.  Picture a 19-foot long, fibreglass tinny (or fibreglassy, as I will now call them).  Not really the kind of boat you want to go head-to-head with swell in.  Yet adventures happen when you least expect them (and more commonly when you fail to acknowledge the tide reports).

In all honesty, the driver did a pretty good job at attempting to cushion the blows.  Especially considering that he was laughing so hard at our fear-filled faces.  I’m not exactly phased by big waves, but smashing over that swell left me dreaming of two things:  seatbelts and a fatter bum.  I must have been clinging on pretty tight, as the journey added 5000 steps to my pedometer.

Just over the half way mark, we stopped.  By we, I mean the engine.  As they conducted mid-sea engine maintenance, punctuated by under-the-breath announcements of “Oh shit!”, I was given time to ponder the many stories that I had heard about OBMs going missing in these waters “all the time”.  I had my PLB (Personal Life Beacon) at the ready.  After 15-odd minutes, we finally started again, then stopped, then started, then made our way bit by bit.  I sang lalala in my mind, and turned my thoughts to flying fish – seriously, how awesome are they!?!

Finally, we arrived at Tulaghi, the original capital of the Solomon Islands.  After washing off the sea spray, it was down to work.  I met with my Central Island Environmental Health counterparts, who are lovely!  We planned the workshops, we selected communities, we spoke with church leaders who signed up to join our program, we arranged quotes and made budgets.  All-in-all a pretty successful day.

To top off the adventure, my colleague arranged for us have a tour of the island.  Given that there are only 4 vehicles on the island – 3 trucks and a tractor – I should probably not have been surprised that our tour was in a police van.  Clearly the police have little else going on.

The nature of the island could be seen in the sharp limestone cliffs cutting down to mangrove swamps.  The economic history of the island could be seen in the (sadly) abandoned and dilapidated Fisheries infrastructure.  The political history of the island could also be seen in the bizarre lodgings built by US forces after the war, the gravestones of British expatriates from the days of the protectorate, and the ‘cut place’ – a passage cut through a limestone cliff by prisoners in the early 1900s.  The community connectedness could be seen in the thriving hub of the sports field that was filled in the evening with laughing adults, teens and children alike.  Rubbish sites aside, Tulaghi is not bad.

Back at the hotel, we took some time to relax, before enjoying a massive grilled Kingclip steak on the deck.  Things could be worse.

The next day, we managed to secure an early ride back to avoid the day’s growing swell.  I had to contort myself on the seat to avoid sitting on the intensely bruised and inflamed parts of my buttocks resulting from yesterday’s jaunt.  We also had to endure several more engine stops, making me very, very suspicious of boat engines in Solomon Islands.  Finally, we made it back to dry land, safe and somewhat sound, given the need to carry a cushion with me everywhere I go.

Categories: Exploring, Work | Tags: | Leave a comment

Santa Ana

Solomon-Islands-map - Copy

When I tell people that a large part of my job is looking for shit in pits, I don’t get a lot of job envy.  But that’s because they never bother to ask, “Where?”  A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of heading to Santa Ana, in Makira Province, as part of a monitoring visit.  If you don’t know where that is, don’t worry – neither did I.  To get there, it’s just a few hours on a little 16-seater Twin Otter plane…….. or a really, really long time on a boat.

Checking in at Honiara, nobody cares about seeing your ID or confirming that there’s nothing flammable in your luggage.  What they do care about is how much you and your luggage weighs.  Fear of terrorism in the form of over-consumption?  First stop on our journey was Arona (on Ulawa island), and then to Kirra Kirra to refuel (using a hand pump and a 44-gallon drum).  Finally, it was on to Santa Ana island.

Domestic airports in Solomon Islands seem to be little more than a ploughed strip of land sandwiched between the rough, rocky ocean and an island of endless palm jungle.  The tarmac is coral, and the terminal – well – there isn’t always one.  Embarkation and disembarkation are all a pretty DIY affair.

Preparing for the plane's arrival

Preparing for the plane’s arrival

On our arrival into Santa Ana, we took the shortcut route to the guesthouse through beautiful dense rainforest track and down slippery coral slopes.  Yep, no cars on Santa Ana, and no malaria either.  The definition of paradise!  Sort of.  I did quickly discover that the island is home to loads of gigantic spiders that like to hang out above my bed and on the toilet seat – that was some real character-building stuff for an arachnophobe.

Santa Ana island is made up of three (and a half) communities, with a primary and high school built in between.  The communities are straight from a BBC documentary – little leaf shacks built atop sandy, coral atolls, with the turquoise blue ocean crashing against the rocks that fringe the community, and half-naked kids with wild hair engrossed in a never-ending game of marbles.

Natagera (9)

The purpose of our trip was to look at the progress of CLTS in these communities, which were triggered in December 2014.  As the rain bucketed down (a drought here is considered to be 3+ days without rain), we – the “yellow men” – wandered between villages, speaking to Chiefs and community members about shit.

Natagera (2)

They greeted us with freshly baked taro, and tours of the Kastom / Spirit houses (for men only, although the view into the house isn’t exactly protected).  They made assumptions that we would bring materials for their poorly maintained water supplies and complete lack of sanitation.  Then, they got a shock as we reminded them that CLTS stands for Community-Led Total Sanitation and that God helps those who help themselves, not the government.

In our down-time, as the rain continued to pour down, there was little to do except make the most of our remote surroundings.  We took a dip in the island’s beautiful freshwater lake, which nobody informed us had a resident crocodile until AFTER our swim.  We drank warm SolBrew beer on the beach while watching the sun set and the entire village’s children splashing about and learning the art of dug-out canoing (they start them young!).  We dined on freshly retrieved megapode eggs, smoked fish, and freshly caught coconut crab, obtained from the local fishermen at bargain basement prices.  And we snacked on the bananas of the day (Fun trivia fact – Makira Province is home to 189 varieties of bananas, with a festival held each year to celebrate the versatile fruit!).

Gupuna lake_Stacey Tyler

Freshwater crocodile-infested lake

Gupuna_digging megapode eggs (1)

Digging for Megapode eggs

Before long, and with another low pressure system looming, it was time to head back to Honiara.  First job was to package the remaining, live coconut crabs to take with us – no easy task, given that these little guys are so strong that they can climb coconut trees and crack open coconuts with their bare claws.  Why we thought they’d be safely contained in a cardboard box, I have no idea.

Dinner time!

Dinner time!

Then it was off to a random guy’s house to weigh ourselves with our bags in the rain, and tick our names off a list.  It’s a great way to see how many kilos the coconut crab has added to your physique in just a few short days.  Then it’s a walk back to the airport, and a wait by the tarmac for plan to arrive – a bi-weekly event for this island that seems to draw out the entire community.

As the islands, ocean, rocky shorelines and palm trees passed beneath me, one can’t help but think how great a job this really is.

SI from plane (1)

Categories: Exploring, Work | Tags: , , | Leave a comment


One minute, you’re cruising along, enjoying the monotony of everyday, barely glancing at the future that seems so far away.  The next minute, you’re in a time warp as the future screams into the present, knocks you for six and leaves you rubbing your head asking, “What just happened?”  For me, that moment is now.

So, what just happened?

After two amazing, unforgettable years in Swaziland, suitable paid work eluded me.  To tide me over, I signed up for a volunteer position in Zambia.  This position was with UNICEF, working on sanitation and hygiene.  UNICEF randomly posted me to the Eastern city of Chipata.  In Chipata, I met some fantastic VSO volunteers.  Those volunteers introduced me to a range of awesome people that I now call my friends.  Among those people was a man who is so spellbindingly loving, selfless and pure that I had no choice but to fall in love with him.  Then, just before Christmas, I was offered a new job.

That man and I are now embarking on a sudden and crazy new adventure that will see us leaving our sleepily-fantastic, land-locked, home of Chipata in just over a week, to move to the tropical Solomon Islands for 2 years.  There, I will be the new National Sanitation and Hygiene Advisor to the Solomon Islands Government.

Now, as you get over the shock of this announcement, I’m sure you are also breathing a sigh of relief that I will be making continual reference to s*#t for, at least, the next two years.  You might also be relieved that you now get to visit me in a tropical paradise close to home, rather than having to trudge all the way to stunningly-spectacular-and-totally-worth-the-trip Africa.  Finally, I am certain that you are all relieved that I will soon be able to gorge myself on endless amounts of unsustainably-sourced seafood.  Boom!  Hello future.

Categories: Life in General, Work | 10 Comments

It’s a shit business but….

This Zambian heat must be getting to me.  In what must have been a state of delirium, I recently signed up for a six-week course in Social Entrepreneurship through Coursera, a social enterprise in itself that offers thousands of free, online courses from some of the world’s leading Universities (check it out:

Led by Professors at the University of Pennsylvania, I joined 19,300 of my fellow students to do mind mapping, logic models, beneficiary tables, competitive analysis matrices, dashboards and scorecards for financially sustainable ideas that can address social issues ranging from child pregnancy in Zambia to irrigation efficiency for small-scale farmers in Kenya.

Thanks to a ridiculously hectic work schedule, travel plans & illness, this course could not have come at a worse time.  Nor could it have come at a better time, thanks to the opportunity to get involved in UNICEF’s Sanitation Marketing training in Luapula Province shortly after.

For those unfamiliar with Zambia, Luapula Province is a long, long way from me, waaaaay up in the North of the country, where waterfalls and marshlands abound.  In fact, one district is pretty much entirely under water in the rainy season (but more on that later!).  There is so much water that the Province faces major challenges in building lasting sanitation infrastructure due to collapsible sandy and waterlogged soils.  That’s where Sanitation Marketing comes in.

Sanitation Marketing is designed to equip community masons with the skills to construct stronger, longer-lasting latrines for a variety of environments, as well as building their capacity in marketing and making an income from this service.  The end result is less open defecation, less illness, and greater economic security for a number of masons and their families.  In other words, we’re helping create shit businesses – and that’s a good thing!

I joined 35 community masons from 5 districts for a week’s workshop on the shores of Lake Bangweulu in Samfya.  The breeze from the lake, and the afternoon dip in schistosomiasis- and crocodile-infested waters, was a welcome reprieve from the debilitating heat experienced elsewhere in the country.

Ahh, Samfya

Ahh, Samfya

Over three days, the masons (and I) learnt how to construct five styles of toilets, using locally available materials such as termite-resistant woven baskets, chicken wire, anthills, and mudbricks.  The competition for best hand washing facility was hotly contested, and introduced some great innovation.  We spent the rest of the time discussing and devising action plans to address the other fundamentals of marketing – pricing, placement and promotion.


While everybody left the workshop full of ideas and enthusiasm to see their businesses become shit hot (get it?), only time will reveal the true impact of SanMark in Luapula.  I can say this, though, already the latrines have passed one test of strength:  withstanding a 5.3 magnitude earthquake that occurred the day we left, with the epicentre in Samfya.

The trip to Samfya didn’t end with the workshop, however.  We were also invited, and privileged, to have the opportunity to visit one of the most remote and sanitationally vulnerable districts in the region – Lunga.

A 3-hour boat ride from anywhere, Lunga is little more than a series of inland islands – very wet islands.  During the dry season, water levels drop enough to allow temporary fishing settlements flourish along the muddy banks of the papyrus-lined, reedy, man-made canals.  It also drops enough to cause havoc to the propellers of motorised boats, virtually limiting outside access to communities except through dug-out canoes.  As the rains return and the waters rise, people return to their permanent settlements situated on the few lumps of land that barely stick out above the rising water table.

Ahh, Lunga

Ahh, Lunga

Needless to say, with a water table at about 10cm underground, construction of pit latrines can be a bit of a challenge.  We were impressed, however, to find a number of holes dug and strengthened by cobelling brickwork.  The down side was that very few of these latrines had walls, a roof, a lid or hand washing facilities, and were built about 2 metres from the house meaning they actually brought the shit and flies closer.  These structures were clearly intended for quick relief under the darkness of night.

The whole week was a fascinating insight into a different part of Zambia, a far cry from the dry, dusty, land-locked environment where I reside.  Eastern Province may not have the same challenges as Luapula, but the potential for shit business is just as great.  Kenny would be proud.

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Operation Matuvi

I swear it will be the next, big, reality TV show.  A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining one of our esteem Traditional Leaders (aka H.R.H) and a district team for a trip into the depths of Zambia’s Eastern Province, in what the team dubbed Operation Matuvi (“Operation Shit”).

I know this may come as a surprise to some of you, but there are still people out there who don’t seem fazed by eating one another’s shit.  For the majority of people, once they are taken through the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) process, which involves several steps in helping a community recognise that shit left in the open eventually makes its way back to your mouth, most are so appalled and ashamed they leap into action.  However, there are always the exceptions, and since their open defection affects everyone else, it was decided that enough was enough.

Led by our fearless HRH, the team planned to hit 10 villages, checking each household for adequate latrines and signs of open defecation.  All those found wanting could be punished according to the country’s Chiefdoms Act.  It didn’t take long to see that hell hath no fury like HRH’s wrath.  House by house, those missing a latrine and practising unsanitised acts were given a stern lecture by HRH, and offered a choice of punishment:  ZK150 (~AU$30, in other words, a lot by Zambian standards), a goat, or a place in the “courtesy vehicle” where they would be taken to the palace for a day labouring in the fields.

Village by village, the affectionately-named “Truck of Shame” became overflowing with offenders.  At the same time, the roof of our own vehicle became home to a number of bleating, crying, screaming, defenceless goats offered in payment, usually by headmen who would rather give over a goat than bear the shame of being trucked with the others to HRH’s palace.  Of course, in such places, word spreads quickly, and as we drove on to the next village, you could see people disappearing on bicycles to escape the chastisement awaiting them.

At the end of the day, with no more room left in the Truck of Shame, HRH took us to one final village.  This village was one that had recently been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF), and we were brought here to witness what an adequate latrine looks like, what is expected of everybody in the Chiefdom, and how to go about it.  In this sense, it is not only a credit to HRH’s leadership that the day’s activities were less about punishment than about teaching people a lesson, but it was also humbling to see HRH getting their hands dirty (literally) to provide this teaching themself.  It is not every day that royalty comes to your house, looks in your loo for signs of shit, and then proceeds to get down on their knees and scrub the toilet floor to make it nice and shiny, as a demonstration to their noncompliant subjects.  Respect.

I went back to this Chiefdom two weeks later, and with the number of people I saw working on building latrines, it is clear the HRH’s efforts were worth it.  With an Open Defecation Free Chiefdom in sight, I can’t wait for the next instalment of “Operation Matuvi”.  Tune in on MTV.

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Over the pits

Whilst studying my Masters in International Health, I never expected that it would lead me to staring into the depths of pit latrines looking for shit.  Yet, here I am, doing just that, in the districts of Zambia’s Eastern Province.  My actions are part of Verification, an important process that formally assesses, and recognises, the great efforts that rural communities have made to become Open Defecation Free (ODF).

In order to be officially regarded as ODF, a village must have 100% coverage with adequate latrines.  This means, that each household must have a latrine with a smooth, cleanable (and clean) floor, a lid covering the hole, a structure that provides privacy, and a hand washing station complete with water and soap or ash.

If you thought that having such a nice, well-equipped toilet was sufficient to stop people from taking a shit outside, though, think again.  While, on my part, I can vaguely understand the sense of liberty that must come with feeling the cool breeze on one’s exposed bottom, there are also some cultural barriers at play here.

For starters, some people view such nice facilities as more appropriate for storing maize than for storing shit.  That hasn’t convinced me to start using my lavatory as a pantry, but to look at the silver lining, I should at least be happy that they are taking pride in what they’ve built.  One small step towards a much greater goal.

The most common argument that I have encountered against using toilets, though, is that in-laws can’t defecate in the same place.  Bewildered, I probed further.  It seems that some family members, for example mothers or fathers, are concerned that if their in-laws (such as daughters-in-law or sons-in-law) use the same toilet as them, that in-law will end up picturing them shitting.  I admit that I would feel a little uncomfortable if I discovered my non-blood relatives were picturing me taking a shit whenever they sat on the can, but I also must admit I have never had such images myself. This probably explains why I am struggling to find a rebuttal.  Any suggestions would be appreciated.

So, to come back to my activities.  After inspecting four villages, and 40-odd latrines, I can only say that I’m impressed by what I’ve seen.  The latrines came in all shapes and sizes, from tiny crouching cubicles to luxurious, spacious roosting pads; from reeds and mud, to bamboo and cement; from chitenge material doorways to perfectly weaved and “lockable” entrances; and, importantly, all pits had signs of shit.   Who knew toilets could be so fascinating.

Categories: Work | Leave a comment

Blog at