Monday, March 19, 2007

Schools, hospitals & clean water

To get a feel for the issues facing Tonga, visiting local people is the perfect place to start. Visiting schools, the local hospital and nearby village water projects has allowed me to see first hand what life is like here in Tonga - and understand what a difference NZAID projects can and do make, given time and careful planning.

Here is a run down of my observations.

As part of the week long education review, we had the opportunity to visit two schools. The first was a government primary school and the second, a non-government secondary school for girls.

The primary school has just over 300 students, 10 teachers and 12 classes. It's a school sports day so the children are outside having sack races. Smiling and laughing, it definitely looks like a lot of fun. The class rooms appear very basic and students are taught in both Tongan and English.

Children attend primary school until year six when they complete the national examination to enter high school. It's a hard exam and students cannot continue their education unless they pass. The top students in the country will go to Tonga College while others might go to a non-government school or leave school altogether, depending on their results. In this school there are 15 students (out of 72 in year six) that are repeating year six.

The principal of the school shows us the key issue facing the school at the moment - the toilets. There is only one toilet working at the moment and they do not have the funds to repair them. For a school of this size, it really does cause major problems for the health and well-being of the children.

Queen Salote College is a Wesleyan girls' college. This means that students are taught the core curriculum plus the extra religious curriculum. The school has approximately 900 students including year seven and eight and 30 teachers with an average of 35 students per class. Girls are dressed nicely in blue and white and there are some classes being taught outside under trees.

There is an immediate contrast between this school and the last school, however non-government schools also face difficulties. The school is funded by fees paid by students and funding is tight. The school has a strong alumni association which does what it can to assist. One of the key issues here is that teachers at non-government schools do not get paid as much as the teachers at government schools. Teachers here talk about the difficulties of the English curriculum, a lack of resources and variance in quality of education across all the schools.

Vaiola Hospital
In Tonga all healthcare including dentalcare is provided free of charge. I met Dr Kyan, an Australian doctor who has been funded by NZAID to work at the main hospital in Tonga, Vaiola Hospital, on a 15 month project improving the service, systems and capacity of the outpatient and casualty unit. The project will finish in July.

Dr Kyan shows me around the hospital and we discuss some of the issues facing the people of Tonga. Diabetes is a major problem here and people are often reluctant to seek help - preferring to try local medicine first, meaning that foot amputations and the like are a common sight. This can also be a factor in many of the other cases presented in the casualty unit where patients are brought in at the last possible miniature, giving doctors and nurses a very small window of opportunity to save the patient.

There are clear differences between what we might expect to see in a hospital in New Zealand or Australia and what I can see here. There are massive queues of people waiting for prescriptions. The windows in the wards are open to the outside, exposing patients to mosquitoes, dust and dirt. It's hot and there is definitely no sign of strong-smelling disinfectant hat you might find elsewhere. But Dr Kyan is quick to point out that these observations are not what makes a good hospital. It's about having the knowledgeable, helpful staff who can treat patients.

Changes are on the way. The World Bank and the Government of Japan have supported a major renovation of the hospital and the results are obvious. The new wing is modern and clean and houses brand-new operating theatres, an ICU unit, the maternity wards and obstetrics. Further developments are also planned.

Clean water for all
It's hard to imagine life without running water to wash and clean but for many villages in Tonga, this is a reality. It's a way to measure development, the town officer in Tatakamotonga, a village that received NZ government support for a water reticulation project told me. The project saw the replacement of leaking piping that was over seventy years old. Before the project was completed people would have to carry water in a bucket from the cement tank to their homes to wash. Now they can have a shower 24 hours a day. People can now install flush toilets, showers and washing machines - reducing risks of typhoid and other diseases. He called the fresh clean water a gift from the NZ government. Everywhere the gratitude of the people was obvious.

I visited Lapaha, where a 200,000 litre wooden tank has been installed to provide the community with clean water. The next stage of the project is to install rainwater tanks for each household to supplement the main tank. The water committee has collected $300 Tongan Paanga from each household to contribute towards the costs and we are now waiting on the Tongan Ministry of Health who have the mandate to release the funds so the construction can get underway.

The third village a much smaller village called Makapaeo where most people are unemployed or live off the land. Here, AusAID funded a water project and NZAID funded a road project - two simultaneous projects that have made a big difference. Now in the rainy season, people no longer have to walk through mud with buckets of water. Not only has the road provided better access it will ensure that the water piping has an extra long life. And the smiles on the faces of those who live here and their heartfelt gratitude is a great way to end my trip to Tonga.

Watch this space for further postings from the field.

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Blogger paul reynolds said...

this is a great project - is it stil going - or have you guys run out of puff - I'd like to do a blog post on it - or at least pass on the link ?
Any news?

1:44 PM  
Blogger paul reynolds said...

tryint to leave a comment - this blogger commnet thingie aint very friendly ..
Anyway, congrats to you all for this initiative. I think it is great!
So hope you coninue to update it - or have you run out of steam?
I would like to blog about it on - so it would be great to hear from you as to how the blogging experience has been for you?

1:46 PM  

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