Day 4 – building a latrine

This morning I built a latrine!  Before this week, I’m not sure that I had ever seen a latrine in the form that I have here in Mozambique.  And I was really excited about the chance to help build one for someone in need.

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Things started well as I met Robina, 76, when a small cat appeared from her corrugated metal kitchen.  I obviously asked her cat’s name, ‘Sakina’, and tried to embrace it, which Robina seemed pretty bemused by – Sakina ran out her kitchen along with a flock of small chickens, so I’m not sure she was keeping her as a pet like my cat, Nelson.

We had come to build one of the first 20 latrines being built in this municipality in Mozambique, funded by WaterAid.  Until today, Robina did not have a latrine – she was one of the 2.6 billion people in the world who do not have access to a safe toilet.  But sometimes I struggle with statistics like that, to get a grasp on what that would be like or feel like.  Meeting Robina, I could start to imagine.  She told me that she goes to the toilet in the bush, and gestured to the scrubland surrounding her and neighbouring houses.

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This is a lady of 76, who greeted us warmly and smiled and laughed.  Can you imagine your own parent or grandparent having to find a spot behind a bush somewhere nearby your house, and by your neighbours, to go to the toilet?  What that would feel like?  What it might smell like in the quiet corners and bushes around your house?  Personally, I can’t bear to think of my parents looking for somewhere to squat around Wandsworth Common, or in their neighbours’ front garden.

It’s easy to say, ‘Ah, but it’s totally different there’ – but I don’t think it is.  Not when you’re talking about human dignity, safety and health.  Everyone should be able to defecate in safety, in private and in a manner that does not risk the spread of fatal diseases within their community.

This morning we worked with a local mason and activists (staff from a local partner NGO) to construct a latrine for Robina.  It was brilliant, hot, dirty work, stacking blocks to line a cylindrical hole for the latrine.  I’ve done some volunteer construction work previously in Costa Rica, and I loved being back among the blocks and concrete.  The day was complete with the hilarious confusion that various people working, in three different languages, some (including me) with no idea of how to do anything , brings to the mix.

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Robina pulled a plastic chair up for her and her friend, and they enjoyed watching from the sideline.  She repeatedly expressed her thanks to us throughout the morning and it was clear that she was hugely grateful for our work and WaterAid’s support.  I was delighted to hear that she had been inspired by a community meeting, which was called to engage her community with hygiene and handwashing education.  Robina said that she had changed her behaviour after learning about the importance of handwashing, because she did not want to get sick.  She was thankful that her new latrine would also protect her from the spread of disease.

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Earlier this week, I had spoken to Edgar at Boane Hoje (a WaterAid local partner NGO) about an approach called Community Led Total Sanitation, and I felt like the latrine we built today was one part of that approach.

He explained that “people used to go to communities and give them latrines.  We are trying to change that.  People ended up waiting for their latrines, thinking ‘my latrine will come’, I don’t need to save for my own.’  Yet again, the key was changing behaviour first.  People need to want a latrine.  And I loved the clever approach that his association took:

  • Go to a community and identify the area where open defection takes place
  • Invite all the community to a drama show
  • A funny facilitator jokes with the community asking them about where they go to the toilet to draw out the truth
  • Community meeting follows at which they are supported to draw up a map showing the open defecation areas and houses with latrines, highlighting houses without latrines
  • Point made about flies landing in faeces and flying to all houses in the community
  • Invite two community members to eat some takeaway food provided. Then present another takeaway box, which when opened, is filled with faeces.
  • Point made that flies from the open defecation areas are landing on them, in their home and on their food
  • Community then asked what they want to do about this
  • Community led to come up with the idea for an approach to change all their community, one household at a time

My teaching background made me really interested and impressed by the engagement techniques used, and I loved the humour and shock tactics.

Hearing Robina speak today confirmed that the community led approach is being delivered effectively and working.  Here she was telling me how pleased she was about her latrine, exactly why she needed it, and how her neighbours would see it and get interested.  I felt excited that WaterAid’s had engineered this for sanitation through a very clever and empowering approach.  And I felt honoured to have had the chance to help build Robina’s first latrine.  I know how much it will mean to her.

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