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Normally I don’t like children. But today I had no choice!

Indonesia, October 15, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

As most of my colleagues will tell you, generally I’m not keen on kids. But today, celebrating Global Handwashing Day with more than 1,500 mothers and children in West Jakarta, I had to get over that pretty quickly.

Global Handwashing Day is celebrated across the world on October 15, to spread the word about how important handwashing is for health. And as I discovered, thanks to all the work of the Mercy Corps Indonesia team, it’s a really big deal in West Jakarta.

Families from across the Durikosambi sub-district of the capital were already arriving when we got to the celebration venue at around six o'clock this morning, and they kept coming. Hundreds of elementary and primary school children wearing Mercy Corps t-shirts, school uniforms and traditional Indonesian outfits (one little guy even had a tuxedo and pencilled-in moustache) arrived with their mothers and school teachers, each school and area trying to out-do the others with costumes and banners promoting handwashing and hygiene.

To begin with, I focused on just trying not to make any of the children cry — usually I feel awkward around children and haven’t a clue how to deal with them, so taking photos without them noticing me as much as possible seemed like the best plan. Then I realised that my camera was acting as a magnet…every time I turned around a group of children was there, waiting to say hi, giggle and chant ‘foto, foto, foto!”. Thirty photos of cute kids later, I’d forgotten my reservations.

Amid the photo-fest, the day had started with a sing-along for the children, and then Mercy Corps Country Director Sean Granville-Ross and the Deputy Mayors for West Jakarta and Jakarta City waved everyone off on a parade around the local area. It was wonderful to be a part of — the children were so excited, waving flags and banners and singing songs about being healthy children, and local people came out from their homes to wave and cheer them along.

Drummers marked the end of the parade, and then everyone crowded around TV cameras, cheering, as the celebrations were broadcast live in a very high-tech national TV link-up with other similar events happening across Indonesia. It was an impressive operation, and all the mothers and children seemed to have great fun being the stars of the show.

After the TV link-up and more singing and dancing, it was time for the highlight of the day: a mass-handwashing session. Everyone — from the government officials to the tiniest children — took turns washing their hands with water and soap, with helpers on hand to teach children to wash their hands properly. When my turn came, to the hilarity of everyone around, I very nearly dropped my camera in the water gutter.

It was a great day, and as well as (at least partially) getting over my awkwardness around children, I learnt a lot about what it means to really involve the community in a project. I’d always known that Mercy Corps worked with local people to promote handwashing and hygiene, and that our projects always aim to be community-led. But until I saw the size of the crowd joining in the celebration today and how engaged they were, I had no idea exactly how much success we were having, or how strong Mercy Corps’ links with the community can be.

The Mercy Corps team here in Indonesia are passionate, committed and really know how to engage communities in their work — and the effect this is having is huge. I can’t wait to see more of their work across the rest of my visit.