The Experience that is Bonriki International Airport (Departures)

 

Another luxury travel review for the internationally renown, Paris-London-Whakatu-Wutunugurra based magazine Luxury-Leisurecation .

Yes it’s slightly satirical.

Bonriki International Airport (departures) in Tarawa is an absolute scream, and fully lives up to the high expectations set by arrivals.

First you go into the departures area, a sweeping statement of Kiribati interior decoration and architecture.  The customs and check-in facilities are both very handy – no long tortuous walks in air-conditioned banality so often encountered in the West.

wp_20170112_09_06_40_proThe immigration portal is ergonomically blended into the check-in lounge next to the relaxing check-in space.

At first glance, it appears that travelers are free to choose which they do first – check-in or customs – as there is physically nothing to stop you choosing which to do first, however, completing check-in formalities first is recommended.  Conveniently there’s a fairly long relaxed queue, so travelers needn’t feel under pressure if they don’t arrive at the airport by the scheduled check-in time.

Once all formalities have been completed, you pass into the executive-class departure lounge.  As with check-in, conventional Western pretentiousness has been fully rejected in favor of a culturally rich fully immersive experience; here you are not only free to mingle with local plane-spotters but you have complete access to all of Kiribati, as there are none of the access restrictions so common-place in I-Matang cultures.

wp_20170112_09_37_54_proLocal executives relaxing in the Bonriki international executive lounge.

Kiribati plane-spotting is a very well patronized pastime.  There is always a large number of enthusiastic plane-spotters of all ages, calmly passing the time until the scheduled arrival of the next plane: waiting cross-legged on traditional woven mats, enjoying conversation and children running with screaming delight along the concourse.

wp_20170112_09_55_22_proEarly-bird plane-spotters starting to take up the prime spots.  

The arrival of the plane is nothing less than an eruption, twofold.  First the unannounced roar of the engines as the de-accelerating plane rushes past the panoramic open windows of the executive-class lounge.  This is immediately followed by the roar and agile movement of the plane-spotters, particularly the younger less experienced ones, moving swiftly to the windows to greet the plane with gentle words of welcome, uttered in measured 120 Decibel screams.

Having then passed an idyllic hour-and-a-half in the executive lounge (or nearby location of your choice) you are free to pass through security and board.   In typical Kiribati style, the original departures area is cunningly transformed into access to the security area – through a door at the rear of the departure area.   Here at least the locals have subtly blended in Western décor with the addition of the security equipment and stark walls.

You then proceed across the gently warmed tarmac to the waiting aircraft, where you can prepare for the final stages of your emotional journey before beginning the physical one.

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Volunteer IT Consulting in Kiribati

As I mentioned recently, I had recently had the privilege to visit Kiribati, and do some volunteering – helping the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) with a couple of nerdy things.  It would be extremely selfish of me to not share some of those experiences.

Not only are technical skills scarce in Kiribati, there’s also a desire to stay up with current trends both in technology and methodology.

Some Context – “The Work”

The main points of interest I want to share are centered on a workshop I ran, but before we get into that it might help if I briefly frame-up the wider “engagement”.

KFHA is a great organisation – lots of passion directed at meeting local Kiribati needs regarding family planning, sexual and reproductive health, HIV testing, and more. Importantly, that passion is also backed up by some real skill, all the medical staff are top-notch and are regularly developing their skills.

The IT department consists of one, a chap by the name of Toani.  His background is in networking – which is great since mines not; they needed help with some data collection and their website – areas that happily I can help with.

First off ,they collect a bunch of data around people who visit their clinics – both the single “static” clinic which also houses the main office, and mobile clinics which operate across all of the 22 inhabited islands spread across the 3.5 million square kilometers of Kiribati waters.  The data is collected by hand, with information hand-written by a nurse into a form, The IT department (i.e. Toani, when he’s not fixing the internet) is then entered into a spreadsheet.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0349b“Toani’s the man, he can fix the internet”.  “Adrian’s the man if you need sunblock, see how much he puts on his face”.

There’s not a lot to talk about as far as the clinic data solution is concerned – basically I just did the usual: talk with a few stakeholders about what they actually did and why.  I then tightened up the spreadsheet by rationalizing the schema, designed new data capture forms that were print friendly, adding some data validation, added bit of a data dictionary, added some other random bits of goodness, and a pivot table (and chart) to handle the analysis and reporting basics.  I then rounded this off with a 12 page design doc and 19 page user guide.  Completing this all just minutes before the farewell party held in my honor was a relief and immensely fulfilling – especially given the 30+ degree heat (and the humidity).

The Website

The brief I got for the website was not a 158 page request for RFP, but something more along the lines of “We think it’d be good to do something with our website, but we’re not sure what.  What  ideas do you have?”

Their site at that time was arranged along the ‘classic’ lines – i.e. our services, about us, etc.  Definitely not a bad start, but in immersing myself in the culture and talking with locals a few things became clear:

  1. Internet performance in Kiribati is not impressive.  The site had some great images and content but the overall load-time in Kiribati was sub-optimal.  Given KFHA’s primary objective is to serve locals this seemed like an important issue.
  2. The site is written in English, and although English is not uncommon content aimed at locals really needs to be in the Kiribati language.  Many of those who most need KFHA’s services come from a impoverished background – meaning there’s less of a chance they’ll speak English (true, they might not also have internet access, but KFHA need to be as inclusive as possible).
  3. Internet access is on the rise, especially amongst Kiribati youth, and most of that access is via mobile phone.

The Workshop – Inception

After mentally getting to this point I ran my ideas past Toani, and then the Executive Director, Norma.  I floated the idea of a workshop, which she said was a great idea, and so it was arranged.

My objectives were… what were they?  Actually I had a few of them, to get my head straight I did some architectural diagrams and mind-maps, and then put together an agenda and eventually a PowerPoint deck to really get my thinking clear.  I had no idea if we’d be able to get hold of a projector, but I knew I could improvise with paper if I had to.

So, objectives:

  1. Regardless of what I do, KFHA need to be as self-sufficient as possible.  I’m certainly happy to support them long-term, but the less I have to do the more sustainable it will be for me.
  2. I needed to get KFHA mentally onboard with my high-level concept for the website, specifically:
    1. Tailor the sites structure, content and tone for those who need it, i.e. focus on local I-Kiribati.
    2. Optimize for mobile, low-bandwidth internet access.

The Workshop – Kick Off

Anyone familiar with Pacific island culture in general may be familiar with “island time” – the time vacuum created by the ocean’s presence.  Given the heat it’s not hard to imagine why.  I often thought about my time in Singapore and how much the GDP would fall if all the air-conditioners failed, office productivity would surely plummet.

Anyway, we were initially delayed for reasons that need not be discussed, but eventually “Ok, let’s start”.  I think we were only 45 mins late in starting, which by some measures means we actually started early, ha ha.

So I stood up and kicked the session off, about 5 seconds after I did this 4 of the 6 attendees started video-recording me on their phones!  This is not something that usually happens when I facilitate workshops with government departments in Wellington.

I introduced the workshop agenda as an “I-Matang” (foreigner) agenda, and invited them to change the format if they wanted.  Of course just because you make offers like this does not automatically mean that people will take you up on them – particularly in cultures that are more conservative.  There’s also aspects such as gender to consider; as with many other cultures men tend to dominate in Kiribati (although that is slowly changing), and so the women might not volunteer suggestions to the floor due to the fact that a man is leading the meeting and other men are in attendance.  In the event everyone seemed okay, perhaps even enthralled by the prospect of an I-Matang agenda, so I just forged on.

As A, I Want, So that.

The first “real” exercise we did was based on Agile user stories.  I wanted them to start thinking about who was actually coming to their website, why, and what they were trying to achieve.  My assumption was that once they understood this they’ll be in a better position to form a good site structure and create content.

I introduced the concept of a user story, and gave some examples.  I then explained why I wanted them to think in this way and how it would help them conceptualize the site and it’s content.  We also spent some time talking about the “so that” and why that part can be really hard and so crucially important – because often the reason why people want something isn’t as straight forward as how it first appears (i.e. the five whys).

“As A…”

We then explored who they thought actually needed to come to the site.  I gave them some examples to get them started and then pushed them firmly to go beyond the easy answers.  Some of the user groups identified were interesting:

  • It transpires that the bus drivers are a special interest group because the role they play in society puts them in frequent and direct access with young women attending school, and because they can leverage this role with the young women.  I’m not sure if calling this a “barter economy” is appropriate but that certainly seems to be the result based on what we discussed.
  • Another group was the Toddy manufacturers / sellers.  Toddy is an alcoholic beverage that can be naturally produced off coconut trees, the links between alcohol consumption and social issues needs no elaboration.
  • Finally, there’s an array of traditional and cultural leaders that are pivotal to sustained family planning activities in Kiribati.  These leaders include what you might call tribal leaders and heads of household; and almost without exception these roles are held by men.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0269bImprovisation is a valuable ability to possess when working in developing nations, matching wallpaper and shirt is optional.

The next exercise was around prioritization – “You have all these user groups, but are we going to treat them all equally (which is fine, you just have a lot more writing to do straight-off), or are you going to prioritize some?”  To do this I introduced the exercise where everyone gets to spend $10 on what they think most needs it the most.

It took a little bit of cajoling to get everyone up to the wall, but they did it and quite enjoyed it too.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0272b

For anyone unfamiliar with this technique, all you do is tell people they have $X dollars (can be any amount) of pretend money to spend on any of the items listed.  They can spend all their money on one item, evenly across several, or any other combination they choose – but they can only spend the amount you give them.  Once they have done this you simply add up the totals and see where the most money was spent.

They quickly got the idea and said they can see themselves using the technique for some of the work they do (same for the user stories).

The Affects of Catering

Then it was time for lunch.  As you can see by Abby’s face (he leads their youth programmes) they were really disappointed in having to stop for a free catered lunch.  Yes that was sarcasm.  Toani told me they don’t often get catered lunches like this and encouraged me to tell Norma we needed to hold some additional workshops.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0277b

You can probably guess what happened next.  Think about it… its hot, we’ve just had a big lunch and its early afternoon.  Yep, people got a little lethargic.  As I am a consummate workshop facilitator, and addicted to dark chocolate, I had a private stash on hand that I dipped into before energizing the room for a final push.

Following traditional western workshop protocol, we then used this post-lunch-should-be-taking-a-nap time to tackle the most mind bending part of the agenda: “I want, so that”.

Actually it wasn’t too hard to get the group going – mostly because they are all very passionate about what KFHA does and the importance of the website.  As you can see from the photo below there was some very deep thinking going on, which yielded excellent results.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0280b

Another indication that value was being unlocked was the nature of the discussion; most of the time things were discussed in English, but sometimes the discussion obviously became deep, complex and impassioned – because they  switched to Kiribati and spoke really really fast.  In these cases I’d just let them thrash it out and wait until some sort of decision seemed to have been reached, and then probe in English.

The Farewell Party

On big projects you might have a go-live party, but I’ve never had a formal farewell party “for me” before at the end of a 10 day, part-time engagement.  And by party I don’t simply mean food, drink and some music playing off someones phone…

In accordance with cultural norms we started about an hour late – which was fine with me as it gave me time to finish writing the user guide for the clinic visitor data solution!

Abby was the MC (surely his true calling if life, sometimes I think he views people at gatherings as his personal play-things “OK, just two more songs” [first song is performed] “OK, just three more songs).  To cut to the chase it was a full-on affair with speeches, songs, cultural items – and of course food.

As evidence of the songs, we managed to record my favorite (Onga Te Bwanaa) on my wife’s Dictaphone:

The song is performed as a group, everyone stands in a circle and sings with some simple movements which include clapping your hands with the person next to you (one face up, the other face down).

The event was then concluded with the obligatory photo shoot, including “free-style”.

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I can’t remember doing any volunteering before – certainly nothing even close to providing IT consulting in a developing country, but I’d definitely recommend it.  There’s plenty of deserving places in the world that could do with some help if you can spare the time, and the rewards are rich even if they aren’t financial.  There are some things money just can’t buy.

 

A Short Introduction to Kiribati

I recently had the privilege of not only visiting Tarawa, Kiribati, but also of doing some volunteer IT consulting there.  Consulting in such an environment is certainly a story worth telling – but before I can do that you really need some background, with pictures…

Kiribati is a place that sadly few have heard of, much less visited, but that’s unsurprising given its physical remoteness and lack of development – it’s not exactly a tourist destination and I certainly felt very intrepid going there.

So how did I end up in Kiribati?  My wife is the architect of the trip – she’s there to do some field research for her thesis; I was there for 10 days to help her get set-up, and do some volunteer IT consulting with the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA).

By the way, the syllable “ti” in I-Kiribati is pronounced “s”, so you don’t say “kiri-bah-tee”, you say “Kiri-bas”; likewise, the township of Betio is pronouced “Bey-so”.

Physical Context

Kiribati is republic of 33 small islands and atolls spread across 3.5 Million square kilometers across the central Pacific – basically at the intersection of the equator and international dateline.  The bulk of the total population (of just over 100,000) lives in south Tarawa: the southern edge of the atoll that runs East-West.

For more background info check out Kiribati on Wikipedia or the CIA Fact-book entry for Kiribati.

In a word, Tarawa is… narrow

We spent most of our time in and around Teaorarereke, a village / suburb between Nanikai and Banraeaba, the width of the land mass here is just over 300 meters, with the lagoon on one side, often with a thin strip of houses running between the lagoon and the newly paved road; bush and housing opposite.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0196bThe view from the causeway looking east from Nanikai, the landmass on the right is about 330 Meters wide, opposite it across the road is effectively beach (lagoon side).

The lagoon itself is an vivid turquoise; a surreal visual contradiction of beauty and featurelessness, strangely imposing under mid-30 degree heat; a presence scarcely captured by a camera.

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People & Culture

Kiribati is a crazy mixture of old and new, a mixture which to my eye seems balanced and sustainable.

Culturally, local tradition is vibrant and well supported – song and dance featuring strongly in public life – and even corporate-government life, and of course “island-time” is a thing.  The influences of modern life are definitely present: many people, especially youth, are increasingly embracing mobile phones & Facebook; but the resulting blend is (or so it seems, for now) much less all-consuming than in “western” cultures.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0003b

With regards to the part traditional culture plays in corporate life; the photo above is from the signing of an MoU between KFHA and the Ministry of Health – a somewhat formal affair by I-Kiribati standards.  Western corporate observers may notice several subtle features that distinguish doing business in this part of the world: the generous use of natural air-conditioning, strict adherence to the latest in corporate attire, and appropriate personal-space whilst dancing.

The format of the ceremony featured speeches and agreement signing – but also a number of performances, typically one group will speak, then accompany the speech with one or two songs – a sort of call-response format not unlike a Maori Pōwhiri.  However, unlike a Maori Pōwhiri, the spraying of perfume on the performers (by those being performed to) is a cultural norm.  Funnily enough I was invited (as a guest, I suppose) to stand at the front of the KFHA group as we performed a song (I’m afraid I just hummed along, since I had never heard the song before and it was sung in I-Kiribati!), and I was one of those sprayed with perfume – which is applied carefully to the lower shoulder.

Actually, I need to be fair and not misrepresent Kiribati with respect to where business is done – the venue for this ceremony was a restaurant, not the corporate offices of KFHA or the Ministry.  Interestingly though, a lot of traditional community business occurs in a physical setting not to dissimilar from this – the venerable Maneaba.

Culturally, the Maneaba fulfills a role very similar to that of a Marae; it is both a meeting house, a place to host community events, and a place to sleep or take refuge.  Physically they are essentially a rectangular building with no sides.  The larger more modern ones these days tend to be constructed with modern materials, but even so it’s not hard to find smaller ones still using traditional natural thatching for their roofs.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0144bInside the large Tenimanraoi maneaba in Betio, during a large wedding we were invited to attend.

Whilst the Maneaba might skimp on walls, weddings don’t skimp on food: 2 pigs, and three 20-30 meter long tables laden with food in this case.  By the end of the night it’s all gone – but not all eaten straightaway, guests will take loaded plates and containers away to share with families later.

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Shopping was an interesting experience – as pretty much everything is imported there’s not an overwhelming array of choice, and given the lack of land there’s not much of a local textiles industry as in others countries (such as the silk scarf production in Cambodia). That said, there’s still people selling local produce by the side of the road: hand-woven rope, bananas & coconuts and more.

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There’s also a number of little shops lining the main road, selling daily essentials, like the one below.  The striped box out the front is a utilities box, these are all uniquely numbered – which makes them occasionally useful for reference, given that there’s no street numbering system.

kiribati-jan-2017-a-0783a

There are more substantial shops than this, to be sure, more substantial in size but less substantial in character.

I’ll leave you with two final vignettes, the first of which is local public transport. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos, at least none that do it justice.  Basically public transport consists of minivans (and the odd minibus) that ply up-and-down the main road.

To board the bus you simply signal the driver – standing at a formal bus-stop (or which there are plenty) is optional.  These vans are manned by two, the driver (always male) and the bus-lady (always female, not sure if ‘bus-lady’ is the formal label).  It’s actually a really efficient system, the bus-lady handles all financial transactions and customer liaison, leaving the driver free to concentrate on the road (and the sound system, Kiribati public buses all play catchy & loud local music, apparently those who don’t play music don’t get as much business).

As the van pulls up the bus-lady will yell out the end destination they are going to (i.e. buses heading east will either be going all the way to Betio (remember that’s ‘Bey-so’) or Biariki), customers will signal agreement or yell out where they are going to.  Depending on circumstances the bus may or may not have come to a stop during this interaction.

Carrying limits are strictly enforced – the bus will only take as many people as can physically fit in the bus.  95% of the time you’ll get a seat.  Treatment of locals and I-Matang (non-locals) is the same, in fact refreshingly so – foreigners attract a certain amount of attention but not as much as I was expecting.  Seeing an I-Matang on the bus was obviously a novelty, but for the most part people just let you get on with your business, the type of badgering and begging tourists are often assailed with in other developing countries was refreshingly absent.

Anyway, back to public transport – English wasn’t widely spoken on the bus, there’s a simple I-Kiribati phrase to announce you wish to get off, but I hadn’t learnt it for my first few trips.  Despite this it was still easy enough to get off, useful techniques include getting off when someone else gets on or off (if you think you’re close enough), or tapping the bus-lady gently on the upper-arm and waving at the side of the road.

The final image I’ll leave you with is one of simple Kiribati domestic life, feeding the pigs under the shade of trees in the gentle 30+ degree heat.

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