Making toilets objects of desire

Meet Mr. Toilet

“The people say ‘Why should I use the toilet? It’s fresh air outside, I can chit chat with my friend while I’m squatting there’. Our big breakthrough will happen when we look at the poor as if they are customers. We need to sell them products that are very beautiful and sexy. Once these become objects of desire, if you don’t have, you’re not keeping up with the Jones… we want toilets to become a status symbol for the poor so that they feel proud to own a toilet, just like a Louis Vuitton handbag”.

In the west, we take our toilets for granted. We may buy flashy seats or put amusing books next to them, but that’s about it. They’re clean, they flush, they’re there. The reality for many in the developing world, and certainly Ghana where water and sanitation has been so neglected, is that toilets are horrific places.

An open dump site with children and cattle surrounded by litter
Children defacate at an open dump site at Nsuta

Imagine your own child at school, unable to find a lockable, clean toilet. If she’s menstruating, she has nowhere to wash or attend to herself in private. The lavatory is full of shit, the floor is covered in shit, the shit goes up the walls. There are spiders. Cockroaches. Flies. Rats. The stench is unbearable. It’s no surprise then, that people defecate in the open. People may be told they should be using toilets, but toilets are about the worst place they could be. When the government built the toilet years ago and it’s full, falling apart and stinking to high heaven, it becomes an epicentre for health risks, not a shield from them.

For many, toilets have also just always been one option – farmers we spoke to in Ashanti region were quite happy to tell us that they went to the toilet out in the bush. It’s how they’d always done it. One farmer had stubbornly refused to cooperate with building a latrine for his own household, saying “Why should I? I can’t bequeath a toilet to my son”.

Lavatory with raised seat
Lavatory with raised seat

But households who had been involved with latrine construction projects from the outset, who had invested their own time, effort and materials into latrine construction, who owned their own toilet, who had been educated in the problems caused by open defecation, were often very different in their attitude. Yes, some let their toilets get dirty. Babies may still defecate in the open. Men still pee everywhere. Good grief, everywhere. But in several communities I saw seen toilets with beautiful mosaic floors, toilets kept spotlessly clean, toilets that are kept locked when they’re not being used, with the mother of the household guarding the key. One man, head of the WATSAN committee for his community, keeps his toilet spotlessly clean so that passing volunteers might use it. He tells the village the obronis use his loo.

When latrine construction projects start, builders from each community are trained in the techniques they need to build toilets – it makes them better builders, artisans. They can then build more toilets, train others, earn money and repair what they’ve built. Community leaders work with the builders and with the households to push people along, get things done, mediate. The household gets a lesson in using their new toilet before they start – keep it in good repair, clean it, don’t wipe your bum with stones or corn husks.

Jack Sim would like to ‘sell’ people beautiful toilets – objects of desire like handbags to boast about to the neighbours – and I don’t disagree with his reasoning. But part of the pride of having a toilet, part of what causes villagers to maintain and clean their toilets so assiduously, is down to the effort they had invested and the oversight of their community and their community leaders, down to education, not just down to a flashy loo.

ht @flashmaggie for the video

In other news, we’re back in the UK now and our feet have hardly hit the ground.