Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When shit is a good thing: Kenya

When is shit a good thing?

People tend to talk about shit as if it is universally acknowledged to be disgusting and repulsive. We don't like talking about it and assume that nobody else does either. For western cultures, shit is waste, disease-causing and filthy.

But can we look at it another way?
In the ethnography Bewitching Development: Witchcraft and the Reinvention of Development in Neoliberal Kenya (which I also discussed here) James Howard Smith writes:

"But when properly controlled, shit was positive: abundant feces indicated health and prosperity--a regular flow of value into and out of the body. Appropriately contained feces symbolized productive social order…When senior men drank together, they sprayed beer out of their mouths, intoning what they understood to be an ironic and amusing blessing: 'May your house overflow with shit!'….Furthermore, when Taita males declared the virtues of hard work and deference, they said that ‘he who is loyal to an elder shits a big stool’” (emphases mine; 2008: 97)

In other words, shit that is abundant and controlled (that is bounded and contained) is, in fact, positive.

It makes sense; you only shit when you can eat, and in places where getting adequate food is not taken for granted, such a correlation is more readily understood. Controlled shit is controlling the body and being a part of society. Having enough food to produce lots of shit is a sign of prosperity and health. In 17th century Germany you can see this as well, as houses would pile manure in their front yards in order to demonstrate their personal wealth.

Shit also equals flow. What goes in must also come out, indicating a connectedness and a natural cycle. (In times and places where shit is used as fertilizer, this becomes a closed cycle, as waste from food is used to produce more food.) Positive flows have long been a part of many different medical understandings of the body.

Note also the equating of loyalty with a large output of shit. A valued personal attribute (loyalty) leads to greater prosperity, as symbolized by shit.

Compare this with the US’s attitudes. Shit that is controlled is a neutral value; it is what it is supposed to be, and thus is ignored. It is only when it is no longer controlled that it acquires a value, but a negative one. Is it any wonder that politicians very rarely campaign on things like fixing sanitation structures? They would far rather correlate their campaigns with positive values. This attitude carries over into NGO work, where donors and workers will often only view the management of human waste as a neutral value; but neutral values bring little glory or donor dollars.

But as the above passage might indicate, if NGO workers adapt the attitude that shit can be a positive thing, then this might go a long way in helping reorient sanitation work values in a more productive way.

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