Whilst studying my Masters in International Health, I never expected that it would lead me to staring into the depths of pit latrines looking for shit. Yet, here I am, doing just that, in the districts of Zambia’s Eastern Province. My actions are part of Verification, an important process that formally assesses, and recognises, the great efforts that rural communities have made to become Open Defecation Free (ODF).
In order to be officially regarded as ODF, a village must have 100% coverage with adequate latrines. This means, that each household must have a latrine with a smooth, cleanable (and clean) floor, a lid covering the hole, a structure that provides privacy, and a hand washing station complete with water and soap or ash.
If you thought that having such a nice, well-equipped toilet was sufficient to stop people from taking a shit outside, though, think again. While, on my part, I can vaguely understand the sense of liberty that must come with feeling the cool breeze on one’s exposed bottom, there are also some cultural barriers at play here.
For starters, some people view such nice facilities as more appropriate for storing maize than for storing shit. That hasn’t convinced me to start using my lavatory as a pantry, but to look at the silver lining, I should at least be happy that they are taking pride in what they’ve built. One small step towards a much greater goal.
The most common argument that I have encountered against using toilets, though, is that in-laws can’t defecate in the same place. Bewildered, I probed further. It seems that some family members, for example mothers or fathers, are concerned that if their in-laws (such as daughters-in-law or sons-in-law) use the same toilet as them, that in-law will end up picturing them shitting. I admit that I would feel a little uncomfortable if I discovered my non-blood relatives were picturing me taking a shit whenever they sat on the can, but I also must admit I have never had such images myself. This probably explains why I am struggling to find a rebuttal. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
So, to come back to my activities. After inspecting four villages, and 40-odd latrines, I can only say that I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. The latrines came in all shapes and sizes, from tiny crouching cubicles to luxurious, spacious roosting pads; from reeds and mud, to bamboo and cement; from chitenge material doorways to perfectly weaved and “lockable” entrances; and, importantly, all pits had signs of shit. Who knew toilets could be so fascinating.