Let’s Talk About Poo….

What comes to your mind when you hear the word poo? It seems more of a posh word. How about we call it what it really is – excrement, faeces, excreta or to be very frank…shit!

I love my toilet or, any other name you would prefer to call it – loo, lavatory, restroom, ladies, gents or whatever….it sure does have a lot of names. So, be it at home, at work, at the shopping mall or anywhere else I find myself in desperate need of the natural process of off-loading the waste in my human system, a decent place is very welcomed. The dignity and convenience of using a clean toilet is always a delight for me, as I struggle anytime I am faced with a dirty toilet. It is just such an unpleasant experience for my system and quite repulsive. Why is that? Could it be as a result of my upbringing, education, culture, exposure, or simply a deep rooted human instinct? My grandmother in the village has no formal western education and is not exactly exposed, but she had a clean ventilated pit latrine which I clearly remember using while visiting as a child, until she was upgraded to the water closet system. Consequently, whether it is an expensive flush system or a simple pit latrine, it makes no difference toilet wise, as long as it is well maintained. Though, I must confess, that given a choice, the electric toilet is just it!

Basic sanitation involves safe disposal of faeces so that it does not contaminate the environment, water, food or hands and is of utmost importance to our health. Yet, today there are over 2.5 billion people in the world (2 out of every 5) that do not have a safe and decent place to go to toilet. Water and sanitation related diseases kill about 2,000 children daily, more than HIV and malaria combined. Girls are forced to drop out of school when they reach puberty and start their menstrual cycle. Sadly, the Millennium Development Goal target on sanitation was one of those that was not met and is still far from being achieved. Even some animals seem to know sanitation is fundamental – cats for example would not use their soiled litter box or tray if it has not been emptied, cleaned and replaced. They would rather find an alternative place to do their business.

Then, why is there such a huge problem with sanitation? It seems that sometimes it is not because of economic reasons but, a complete misplacement of priority. There are millions more with mobile phones compared to those with access to a decent toilet in developing countries. Urban slums especially have completely fallen foul of this. Open defaecation seems to be entrenched as the accepted norm. How do we get out of this predicament? Is it through regulation, policy, governance, advocacy, influence? Or is it simply value reorientation and behavioural change? There is no doubt that a sustainable and integrated intervention is urgently needed through political will. Governments need to start making provision for sanitation in both urban and rural areas through some form of shared or fully funded schemes. NGOs are meant to complement the work of governments and they have done a lot but, more is needed.

Value reorientation cannot be over emphasised in this case. For over six years, I have enjoyed my volunteering work with #WaterAid as a Speaker and Workshop Facilitator. This role involves going into schools and organisations, usually on invitation, to talk about the excellent work that #WaterAid is doing and solicit for support. My best moment is usually when I show films to school children on some of the horrible sanitation situations in the most affected areas of the 37 countries WaterAid works in. You can clearly see the utter disgust written over their innocent faces – and this makes me almost certain that they would be organising some wonderful fundraising ideas for the organisation, which they usually do with such admirable dedication. Children in developed and developing countries have one thing in common, they are by nature easily influenced and, can be the ultimate agents of change desperately needed to make a difference. I strongly believe sanitation and hygiene education should be signed into law as a compulsory school curriculum by the United Nations.

My take on this is, unless there is a radical change in governance and attitude, the sustainable development goal on sanitation will still be a failure, which would be a real shame. But, I have hope that change is on the way!

Photographer credit: WaterAid/Suzanne Porter