“These children, most of them come from the crowded homes on the plantation – four families in one house – and we tell them if you work hard here at school you can change your life through education!”
It was mid-afternoon, hot and steamy in PNG. I was sitting with two teachers, chatting on the balcony of a classroom while waiting for the Live & Learn car to come and take us home after spending the day with the WASH in Schools program in the school.
“We used to have a problem with fighting in the school, but since the child rights and peace program started we don’t have problems with fights. Now the children show respect. Now the children are working hard at their studies.”
I had to agree with the teacher. I had just spent time with 60 of the students representing Grade 4 to Grade 8 in a hot sweaty classroom. I wanted their opinions on the work they had done through their Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) Club, and they were attentive, respectful, self-directed and thoughtful. In 2012 Live & Learn PNG worked with this school to conduct child development training, including child rights training and establishing a student peace club called Joyful Friends. The first students in the club were in Grade 3 – now these students are in Grade 8, about to graduate from primary school. The Live & Learn project ended, but the Joyful Friends club became fully integrated into the school culture. Now students from Grades 4 to 8 are selected each year to serve in Joyful Friends.
In 2014 Live & Learn returned to work with the school on a WASH in Schools program. Joyful Friends Club was operating well and the children were keen to participate in more projects. Now students in Joyful Friends are expected to make speeches at all school events. They have taken responsibility of assessing each classroom to make sure Hygiene Corners are stocked with toilet paper and soap. They have painted hygiene message murals on the walls of the toilet block, and successfully advocated with the teachers for the toilet doors to all be repaired so everyone has privacy when going to the toilet. The students in the club also serve as prefects for the school – conducting hand-washing demonstrations, making sure soap is on the toilet sinks, taking charge of the school gate, making sure rubbish is collected, the toilet cleaning responsibilities are fulfilled, etc
Another teacher told me how she left the school to teach in another one closer to town. After two years she returned to this school because she felt the learning environment was better and the students had more self-discipline. When she returned she could immediately see that the Joyful Friends club had been working to improve hygiene and sanitation. Almost 1000 children attend this school. Every teacher in the school is now integrating hygiene activities into their classroom activities.
The day of my visit was World Water Day. The entire school was celebrating the day with poster displays, songs and performances. Members of the Joyful Friends shared reasons why water is so important for life, and why it should be protected. Groups of students performed songs they had composed specifically for the day. Their proud teachers wore wide smiles during the performances: “A few years ago these students were fighting. Now they are singing their own songs and being leaders for the other students. We are growing future good citizens in this school,” one of the teachers told me.
I spent some time talking with the Grade 8 students, the elders of the Joyful Friends Club, and asked them to share their wisdom from nearly five years in the club. Each student wrote on star stickers three things they were proud of doing through Joyful Friends, and then they wrote on cloud stickers three suggestions for what the club can do in the future. We put stickers all over the classroom wall to share their thoughts. The school still faces challenges – there are nearly 1000 students and only eight toilets, water access is good but they need more places in the school for children to be able to easily wash their hands. The teachers were outside, so this work was completely owned by the students. They wrote: “Joyful Friends brought teachers and students together to live in a healthy environment,” and “I hope that someday later Joyful Friends will change the whole world by helping others to live a healthy life.” As we all stood together to read the responses I was proud of these students too – this school in West New Britain province in PNG is definitely growing the next generation of good citizens.
This article was written by Michelle Abel, Project Advisor for the Western Pacific Sanitation Marketing & Innovation Program, which is implemented by Live & Learn in PNG, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu with funding from the Australian government through the CS WASH Fund.