Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Apparently today, November 19, has been declared World Toilet Day by the United Nations. You can learn more about why the UN is bringing awareness to the value of toilets here: It is actually a real issue worth highlighting. I wrote the blog post below a few days ago and given that it's World Toilet Day, it seems like the right time to drop it. Enjoy!

If you are one of those people who dislikes acknowledging that we civilized humans have well-developed and very important GI systems that include the removal of waste, this is not the blogpost for you. Leave now! Or at least consider yourself warned. Today I am discussing something that is an integral part of my everyday: human waste.

My awareness of human waste and its disposal has been a regular part of my professional adult life. Many of my peers arrived in Africa a bit skittish at the thought of dirty latrines and the very likely possibility of GI problems. I, on the other hand, have spent a decade with an awareness of when, where, and in what way human waste can be removed from the ship. I have regularly explained to students what can go into the marine head and what to do if things do not disappear the way they “should” after pumping the handle correctly. Similarly, when on land, I often find myself drawn to places where pit latrines are the only private option. I even spent my last summer in the US including the discussion of “humanure” in my composting classes at AMC's Three Mile Island.

It stands to reason then that the options for removing waste from the body in Africa would not phase me much. In fact, they tend to amuse me more than disgust me.

Young Children:
Once out of diapers, most young children are taught to always go outside. It is not unusual for a three year old child to drop into a squat only feet from other people to discharge both ones and twos. During training, the young children were always so excited to wave to our bus, that sometimes they would stop in the middle of discharging waste to wave to us!

Personally, I love my latrine. When I was working on Three Mile Island, I created signage about water usage and waste for out latrines. It astonished me to think about how much treated water is used throughout America to “wash away” our waste. I am not suggesting the entire world revert back to pit toilets, especially in urban settings, as this would create other issues such as aroma and the potential for disease to spread more easily.

At the same time, I take joy in knowing that at the moment, my waste does not need water to wash it away. Despite my latrine being brand new when I arrived and despite my following the keep it covered rule, my latrine had a serious fly problem for a few months. Finally, tired of blasting DOOM, a local pesticide, into the latrine to annihilate the flies, I called upon an expert-one of the guys I worked with back on Three Mile Island, where our latrines serviced over 100 people a week for the duration of the summer-Jake.

As Maintenance Manager for TMI, Jake had spent a lot of time looking into options for reducing fly populations and odor in the traditional latrines on the island. He suggested adding a bucket of water to the latrine from time to time-not an ideal option here, but doable during big rains. He also suggested I look at a company called AMKA Organico, a company based in South Africa he had looked at but not yet tried out.

A bit of research online showed they have a product called SuperSeptic, which uses biotics to reduce odors and fly breeding in latrines. The biotics also help waste break down faster than occurs naturally. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon it in one of the three grocery stores in my camp town. I read the package and decided to test it out.

Super Septic suggests using is weekly for the first month as an appropriate level of the helpful bacteria is established. After that, one use per month is said to be sufficient. It also suggests adding a bucket of water with each treatment to help with waste breakdown. Lastly, it stresses that detergents and chemicals are a big no-no as they will kill the bacteria. At 15R or $1.50 US, it was well worth a test even if it did not work.

The first week, I noticed an immediate reduction in flies and by day two, the smells come out of my latrine were almost floral. Unfortunately, this was before the rains really started and my enthusiasm to put as much liquid into the latrine as I could meant that toothpaste went in to. By day 5, the flies were back and living happily. I bumped up the next treatment by a day and started separating gray water in the house to ensure I did not accidentally kill off my bacteria.

At the end of the second week, things were still looking good. The rains had started, so it became easier to add a bucket of water with the treatment. Now, I am about to add the last of my weekly treatments before transitioning to monthlies. While flies still enjoy hanging out in the shade created by my latrine, they are not down in the pit, which means that Super Septic has eliminated a breeding space. Hooray!

Pee Buckets:
My beautiful pee bucket!
Pee Buckets are the gem of Peace Corps life throughout the world. Our first day in country we were given a bucket by Peace Corps along with instructions to use it instead of the latrine at night. The instructions, given by current, more experienced PCVs, came with some tips and tricks. They strongly suggested only using the bucket for pee. If one needed to do more than that, it was “recommended” that one use a plastic bag at the mouth of the bucket to capture the waste so it could be tied up and would not foul the precious pee bucket.

While some people in training openly bragged about how often they poo'd in their pee buckets, others discretely acknowledged “they aren't just for pee!” in an adorable and playful voice. Still others worked diligently to master the art of using a bag in the bucket for solids.

I am lucky enough that I rarely need to use my pee bucket for more than pee, however, I find the bag in the bucket method to be pretty ridiculous. The theory is that it is more hygenic, cleaner...however, the tied up shopping bag is then left in the bucket until it is dumped into the latrine with the liquid waste in the morning. We all know shopping bags are not hermetically sealed, so the germs are still present in the bucket despite the use of the bag. Additionally, tying up natural waste (be it food pre- or post-digestion) in plastic makes it harder to break down once added to the latrine. Lastly, the pee bucket is like a portable toilet or chamber pot. Like a toilet, it needs to be cleaned with detergents from time to time. Why go through the challenge of training yourself to poo in plastic bags when all you need to do is wash your bucket more often?

In short, human waste is natural. It's not that hard to clean up safely and effectively. Why make it more awkward and clutter up a latrine with a bunch of plastic bags that negatively impact natural decomposition?

When there's no Water:
Most of the camp towns (district capitals) in Lesotho have flush toilets and sinks for washing. Despite my love for my latrine and pee bucket, I still appreciate flushing a toilet from time to time. The excitement, however, comes from being in town all day on a day there is no water. The downside to having the flushing toilets is that there are few places to go privately when there is no water.

Two weeks ago, I was at the taxi rank and desperately needed to use the public toilets before hopping on my taxi for a bumpy ride home. With no water, however, they were closed. I spoke to the attendant for a few minutes and asked if I could just go to the taxi rank fence and squat like the children do. This was met with a firm no, as that is not private enough for a woman.

Once the attendant learned I needed only to pee, she directed me to a small brick closet off the public bathrooms. She told me there was a woman there with a bucket I could use. I went and knocked. The woman welcomed me in. The “office” or closet was not much bigger than a large portapotty. The woman continued sitting at her small desk and simply pointed to the bucket. As I squatted, her phone rang. I could not help but laugh to myself as I peed in this small space while the woman sat there talking on her phone. In Lesotho, woman sharing space like this is normal, even when they do not know each other. After I finished, I took the bucket out to dump it in a nearby grate, and returned it with many thanks. Sometimes basic needs trump the desire for privacy.

Legend has it, you are not a Peace Corps volunteer until you poop your pants while on public transportation. This probably comes from the reality that many PCVs encounter serious diarrhea at some point during their service. I have one friend who acknowledges this has happened to him not once, not twice, but three times. I am pleased to say, it has not happened to me as of yet and I am praying it never does!

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn