Latrines & Things
Vasco Pyjama has an interesting reaction about her agency building a fancy multiple-seat latrine for a school that had a severely compromised, dilapidated latrine. She was upset to find the fancy latrine was locked by the teachers.
This has got my friend Liz and I, with much, too much time on our hands, reminiscing about latrines.
Liz remembers travelling with AMREF’s flying doctor to one Masai community in Kenya. They found the Masai women were making use of the flush toilets by washing their sheets in the porcelain bowl. It resulted in a number of sheets being flushed down the toilet and jamming up the works, until they realized these strange white porcelain fixtures were not washing machines.
We may laugh, but how would they know? When would they have seen either? And sadly, given the choice, I am sure they would rather have had a washing tub than a toilet.
In a new compound in Uganda where I worked, we had male and female toilets in the main building for use of the whole staff. When I found mud and gravel on the toilet seat a couple of times, I just wondered to myself but when I found footprints on the seat, I was truly perplexed and had to ask what was happening. It turned out that some of our workers were unfamiliar with sit-down toilets so were standing on the seat and squatting. For this, one needs wonderful balance! We thought lots about what to do and in the end decided we needed to build pit latrines on the compound as well.
A doctor Liz knew lost his glasses down a latrine built on a mountain in Bhutan. When he asked the monks how he could retrieve them, he was told the pit was so deep it had never been emptied and he should just give up on his glasses.
The difficulty of retrieving things from a latrine reminds us of a retired doctor we know who is so concerned about babies dropped down latrines (a not-uncommon way to dispose of unwanted babies in Africa since nobody wants to go down after them) and children who fall into latrines (a not uncommon toddler injury) who are reported in the Kenyan newspapers, that he has devised a knotted rope which can be stored in a latrine to allow older children to be pulled up and someone skinny to be lowered to rescue an unwanted baby.
Pictures are used a lot for health education in our project. One of our pictures shows a woman sweeping up a child’s feces and putting them in a brick walled pit latrine with a wash area attached. When we tested the picture in the villages, people interpreted the pit latrine as a cooking kitchen and could not understand why the mother would put the feces in a kitchen. So we had to draw banana leaves over the pit latrine look more like those that are familiar to them.
Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) latrines which limit odors and flies are one of the major contributions to improved health in the developing world, especially when combined with hand washing provided by Tippy Taps. They are in the same category, in terms of impact, as Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS) and access to potable water. So issues related to latrines are important to understand.
What do these stories have to tell us? I am not sure, except that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about behaviour related to defecation. We probably should always assume we just haven’t understood.
Photos: model home latrine in village; design of VIP latrine; confusing picture