Sunday, March 30, 2014

Village Visits: Toilets

One of the fantastic African sunsets, and especially special because there are clouds!
The past two weeks have been a blur of planning, village visits, movements between three bases on long, dusty (bumpy) roads, and the occasional Ping Pong game. Instead of going day by day (or week by week), I'll just cover one topic at a time, a sort of "What I Do" series. Let's start with SANITATION! Yes, we WASH people get excited talking about (and looking into) toilets. Stinky? Yes. Fun? Of course! And there is always room for an opportunity to educate, promote, and celebrate.

A newly constructed latrine.
The WASH teams here have been working hard on Hygiene Education and Sanitation Promotion in villages. Open defecation is the norm, and toilets can be intimidating, superfluous, unconnected. I say unconnected because many do not understand (as even those in developed countries only relatively recently understood) germs, where they come from, and what they do. The connection between fecal contamination and illness is abstract. So WASH-y people focus on Hygiene Promotion, what germs are, and how we can prevent their spread. We spend time spreading out across a field adjacent to households, hunting for, *ahem*, poop. Yep. It's a component of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) - you can read about a training we conducted in Uganda a few years ago here.

What's that in the foreground? Yep, poop.
So we promote toilets. We encourage households to construct their own. We ask that they actually use the toilets. With the rainy season pending, diseases will spread quickly, especially with the landscape flooded and basic hygiene low. Reducing exposure pathways is just one way to ease the disease burden. The Hygiene Team not only demonstrates how to construct a latrine with locally available materials (usually we fund one or two latrines in a more vulnerable household, such as one of an elderly person, and use this as an example, a template, for the community), but also how to use a toilet.

Henry demonstrates how to use a squat toilet.
The latrines here follow the same structure as houses, a wood frame covered with a thatched grass roof. The walls are often grass as well (though mud on the houses). Inside, they are actually quite nice, a cool respite from the sun. Sometimes.

The beginnings of a new household latrine.
And, mostly likely because of my skin color, no matter where we go, especially as we're wandering around a rural village, a crowd follows. I don't mind, usually the high majority of these are children. I see it as an opportunity for promotion. Invent a quick game or song the kids can learn. I quiz them: "Do you know what this structure is? What is it for? How do you use it? Why is that important?" They are fascinated (and terrified) of me, but they listen intently, and respond shyly.

Community Hygiene Volunteers and children discussing a partially constructed latrine.
And this is what I do. Sometimes, it stinks. Literally and figuratively. I'm not really sure why, but it almost doesn't matter how hot it is as we're walking around (and it is hot, usually 105 F plus), but I don't seem to notice. I want to learn more, I want to see more, I want to meet the community, talk with the kids, and my comfort comes second to that.


  1. Amelia, it's good to see that you're settling in well in your field assignment. I'd kill to have 105 degree weather-- our snow finally melted a couple weeks ago in Boston. Maybe I have to get back to Africa!

    1. Thank you Ed! The heat isn't as bad now that I am used to it ;) But snow still sounds wonderful!