Friends from 3/11 disaster helping woman improve toilets in Tonga

Used to seeing clean and high-tech toilets in her native Japan, Takako Lui was stunned by the deadly dirty bathroom at a school here that her children attended.

Lui, 40, soon began efforts to improve school toilet facilities in the Vava’u island group in this island country in the South Pacific, some 7,800 kilometers from her homeland.

Lui's goal is for “an environment where children can study without any anxiety.”

Touring all of about 30 schools on the islands with a total population of 15,000, she is working to improve their aging restrooms and water supply systems that have not been properly maintained due to a lack of funds.

Her efforts are backed by her friends in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region, as they closely helped each other in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Lui, who is originally from Tokyo, moved here in 2016 when her former husband, Lata Lui, now 37, retired as a rugby player and returned to his hometown.

What shocked her was the unhygienic bathroom at her two children’s elementary school.

The tank to store rainwater had broken down, making the water supply system unavailable. Filthy water from toilet equipment was discharged untreated as well.

Lui has since visited around a dozen schools on the island group and found the restrooms of all the schools suffering from similar problems.

In the worst case, the lack of hygiene resulted in a child near Lui’s home dying of a suspected infectious disease. But parents and other guardians of pupils gave up trying to rectify the situation, pointing to a shortage of funds.

Under such circumstances, Lui thought, “Tonga does not have enough money, but some countermeasures must be taken. It may be possible for me to create an environment where children at least do not have to die by staging a campaign.”

Acting on this thought, Lui proposed to the school principal, guardians and other residents that toilet facilities should be renovated. Her enthusiastic persuasion gradually inspired them, finally leading to the replacement of the water storage tank and the improvement of toilet equipment.

A new tank that can hold up to 5,000 liters of water was installed, while toilet bowls and floor tiles were replaced with clean ones in the renovation work, which lasted three months.

The refurbished bathroom is currently maintained and managed by guardians and cleaned by children.

When a huge earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku on March 11, 2011, Lata was playing for the Kamaishi Seawaves R.F.C. rugby team in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. At the time, Lui cooked meals every day for more than a month for 80 people who took refuge at the clubhouse.

The individuals fed by Lui following the disaster are now returning the favor to her by supporting Lui’s efforts to introduce cleaner toilets in Tonga.

Kamaishi Seawaves officials and others in Kamaishi have made contributions, holding a charity concert and setting up collection boxes at events, which quickly raised 1 million yen ($9,100) in donations.

“I have nothing to return to them, but they have done me such a great favor,” said Lui, expressing her appreciation for the kindness of Tohoku residents. “People spontaneously work to help others.”

Based on the contributions, water tanks and toilet facilities at two schools on the island group were renovated in 2017 and 2018, respectively. She is currently planning to refurbish the bathroom of the third school.

Meanwhile, Lui also shows teachers and pupils at schools on the islands how to wash their hands and the importance of properly using soap. She also engages in a beach cleaning activity to teach the significance of nature.

“Children have great potential,” Lui said. “I would like them to study hard under healthy conditions in an environment where they can become conscious so that they can grow safely because people around the world are helping them.”

In late 2017, Lui founded a nonprofit group called the Vava'u Future Creating Project to assist in her activities and call for further support.