I see what, to me, looks like total poverty, shacks of varying descriptions and sizes, dogs, rubbish, dust, dirt, car wrecks everywhere. It’s my first mission as a New Zealand Red Cross delegate, and already I feel so alone and tired and wonder if I can really do this.

My phone doesn’t work here and later on that day Tiraen, the Kiribati Red Cross Society’s first aid officer, helps me buy a SIM card and top up the credit. But in one short phone call back to my husband in New Zealand it is all used up. I have internet at the motel, but while I can receive emails, I can’t send any for three days. I’m worried because I can’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 get my husband to do it from New Zealand!

The negative feelings start to diminish quite quickly. All the staff and volunteers at Kiribati Red Cross Society are amazing. They help and support me, and every day for morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea the cook (who they call “Cooker” but whose real name is Kiebu) feeds me beautiful local specialties like chicken curry, raw fish curry, chicken drumsticks, and doughnuts (my favourite).

I am in Kiribati to train 13 Red Cross first aid volunteers: 6 current instructors and 7 new instructors. They are so keen and eager to learn and so dedicated. They work hard every single day. It’s exhausting teaching in the late 20’s early 30’s C heat and humidity. I haven’t experienced it before so my ability to keep energised, upbeat and focused wanes at times. But whenever the class starts feeling a bit flat we sing. The songs are some of the most beautiful harmonies I have heard and afterwards we find ourselves ready for another session.

Over the week their confidence improves, their English improves, and their knowledge improves. They have to do three different presentations over the week on a variety of first aid topics. I’m blown away at how some of the students use local resources to help the class understand a concept. For example one of my favourite students uses a flower with a long stem to describe the brain and spinal cord. Genius! They give me many ideas and in turn I challenge them, make them laugh, confuse them at times, but we get through a fantastic programme. They are a total inspiration and a joy to teach.

During my daily 20 minute drive to the Kiribati Red Cross Society headquarters I start to see the beauty in the place. I notice things I haven’t seen the day before, like people out most days sweeping up the fallen leaves and rubbish outside and around their homes, 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 can see past the squalor and the health issues and notice the pride and resilience people have. The scenery, in places, is stunning.

Before I leave I attend a local church service and am so glad I have experienced it – the singing, dancing and the faith that everything is 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 farewell me at a four-hour function where they sing, dance, and make heartfelt speeches. We share our last meal and they sing me a song they composed especially for me. I leave Kiribati sure that my ‘babies’ will 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. The programme is supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The New Zealand Red Cross delegates programme has been running since 1960.