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Last week, All We Can’s Steph Dalton visited a village in Zimbabwe where one of our local partner organisations is helping people to improve their health by rethinking their priorities around sanitation. Today, on World Toilet Day she explains why next time she visits Sigiji, she won’t be looking where she’s stepping.
It was drizzling one day in May when a group of neighbours wandered over to a spot behind a leafy bush in Sigiji village, Zimbabwe. When they reached their destination, some covered their mouths and noses. Others looked away, giggling. The brave ones looked closer. The object of their attention? Fresh faeces nestled in the dirt, partially obscured by the bush. Guava seeds could be seen dotted throughout the freshly deposited pile of poo.
Just six months ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a toilet in Sigiji, a large village perched atop a long ridge stretching like a raised scar across Gokwe District. In fact, less than 20 of the 125 families in the village could have proudly pointed you to the outhouse at the end of their garden if you had had reason to enquire (and I would be lying if I said I haven’t found myself in this position in Zimbabwe before). For most people, ducking behind a bush or a tree was their location of choice when nature called. This situation isn’t unusual in rural areas of Zimbabwe. In this area of Gokwe District alone, less than one in ten households has a latrine in use according to the most recent figures.
Back on that drizzly day, a local environmental health worker used someone’s shovel to pick up the guava seed-flecked piece of poo. A woman jumped back as the shovel swung toward her. He carried it over to the village’s meeting place and put in on the ground. Everyone gathered around. Understandably hungry and parched after the walk to and from the bush toilet, a few of the villagers happily put their hand up when asked to volunteer to drink half a glass of water and have a bite to eat. After the chosen volunteer had gulped down half a glass of water (leaving the other half in the glass) and swallowed half a plate of chicken and rice, the environmental health worker asked the volunteer to put the remaining half glass of water and plate of partially eaten food back on the ground next to the poo. He waited. The villagers waited. They all watched as several flies gleefully dipped into the poo before buzzing over to the plate of rice and chicken and back again. The environmental health worker picked up a stick, prodded the poo with it and slowly dipped the end of the stick into the glass of water before giving it a little stir.
He looked up, a glint of mischief in his eyes, and asked if anyone wanted to finish the food or water. Everyone looked at him in disbelief. The environmental health worker asked the village to estimate how much the poo weighed, and how often (on average) they duck away to relieve themselves. The clever ones in the group quickly averaged that in a given year there would be up to 30 tonnes of faeces left around the village, ready and waiting to be deposited on to uncovered food by flies or washed into a stream or garden in the rainy season. Comprehension dawned on everyone’s faces. So they had been – gulp – eating their own poo? And washing it down with a refreshing glass of poo-infected water? To make matters worse, the environmental health technician explained, not only is eating and drinking (or washing in) your own poo pretty disgusting, but it can also result in diarrhoeal diseases, eye infections and skin disease. With a recent Cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe on everyone’s minds, the situation just got much more serious.
The good news for the villagers in Sigiji is that there was an answer to their predicament: digging a two-metre pit in their garden, lining it with concrete and doing their business there instead of behind a bush. Better yet, adding a structure on top of the pit to protect everyone’s decency and trap any flies interested in investigating the pit closer. Oh, and making sure to eat food as soon as possible once cooked, cover up any water in buckets around their homestead and definitely, definitely wash their hands after they’d visited the loo. Understandably, the villagers all agreed that it should be every household’s number one priority to get digging.
In a village where most people live below the poverty line and recent economic troubles have seen the price of essential food items double, committing to use scarce resources to dig and line toilet pits is impressive. At least, I thought so when I visited Sigiji myself last week. Some villagers have even managed to scrape together the resources needed to build the bit you see above ground, while others have put up a temporary fence made of grass. Nearly every household has installed a hand-washing station next to their pit. Those incredibly vulnerable households who can’t afford enough cement to line a pit will be supported by our local partner with the resources they need. As the villagers told me after they’d shared the guava-seed story with me, their health is a priority, and nothing should stand in the way of that. And, of course, they assured me, that were I to go and look behind that bush, I wouldn’t find anything there!
How about a Christmas Yule Bog from our #ExtraordinaryGifts? For just £73 you could provide the materials needed to build a toilet for a vulnerable family in Zimbabwe. Toilets provide safety, convenience and protection from diseases. Go to allwecan.org.uk/christmas for more.
Stephanie is All We Can's Partnership Manager for Zimbabwe and also leads All We Can's work to find ways to support the capacity development of the local organisations and churches we work with across the world.