Friday, June 29, 2012

Rihanna and the toilet: post from Ethiopia

As I mentioned before, I'm in Ethopia--sorry about the lack of blog posts, but I hope to get a couple more up before I return to the US.

The man points towards the back and says something in Amharic. My companion and fellow researcher translates: “Towards the back and to the right.” I nod, and we begin clambering towards the back of the house, trying to avoid the—mud? Mud and manure and urine, I’m guessing, but since it’s rainy season, the three mix together as to be almost unidentifiable. Maybe better that way. I duck under a wooden plank, step on a tire, and hop across to a less-wet spot, balancing myself with the wall of the back shed.

I then duck into the wooden structure with wide gaps in the walls. I fervently pray that no one is going to look over and notice the pale white farangi with her pants down. I get enough attention as is.

The boards are uneven, slanting precariously at a good 30 degree angle. Between the large cracks, I can clearly see a shallow pit of foamy urine, mud, and shit. As I squat over the dark hole and take the fastest pee of my life, my primary concern is that the boards don’t decide today is the day they are going to rot away and I plummet waist-deep in human fecal matter. As I squat, dimly, somewhere, I can hear Rihanna playing on someone’s cell phone or radio: “We fell in love in hopeless place…” I pull my pants back up and jump out of the outhouse, safe from the pit—only to plunge my foot into the pool of manure. 

Public restrooms are not really a part of life here in the rural farming town near Jimma in southern Ethiopia. They’re not a part of life in the town of Jimma, although you might think with the town being the “origin of coffee” it might also be the origin of public restrooms. But it isn’t. Restaurants might have them, but they’re often dingy and dirty. People are expected to go only twice a day—once in the morning, once at night. When I first heard an Indian woman tell me that this is what was expected of them in India, I had been horrified and in awe; now, I find myself similarly regulating my water intake so I can avoid incidents like the above one, which is also worsened by the humiliation of asking for a toilet.

I can’t help but wonder what the health effects of “holding it” are. I know that chronic dehydration can lead to kidney stones, but I haven’t been able to even figure out what to google to get scientific literature on the health effects of “holding it” simply because I haven’t figured out the fancy name for “holding it.” And I have just been discussing urine, but fecal matter as well. If people don’t want to go, they have a terrifying ability to hold it—often times causing serious health problems. (This is particularly a problem for people who go camping in places that don’t have “adequate” facilities.)

I have a great toilet back in my hotel room which I make stops at as needed if I’m in town. But for many people, thier home toilets are not much better. The one that I used was, in fact, somebody’s private toilet. It can be difficult to get children to use many of these home-done latrines because the holes keep widening, making them afraid (and rightfully so) of falling in. Toilets should be private and comfortable, clean and safe in order to be something that people will choose to use instead of risking their health by “holding it” or defecating in the open. Having a latrine is important—having one that people actually feel comfortable and safe using is perhaps even more important, because otherwise it quite simply won’t get used. Shit disposal is not usually on people’s minds when they use a toilet. Why is it the first thing we think of when designing for people?

Ethiopia has a lot of problems: latrines are only one of many. It may seem facetious in the face of that to talk about the “experience” of using a latrine as being as important than the latrine itself. But what we remember are the experiences. What people care about is not feeling like they’re going to fall in. So let’s built toilets all over the place. Let’s get public restrooms where people need them, and let’s make them awesome.

You can think of that every time you hear Rihanna on the radio. I probably will.


  1. Intriguing-- I had always imagined (aka naively fantastized?) that people living in more rural / lesser developed regions would be able to go more often than those in Westernized areas.

    I'd start with googling psychogenic urinary retention or paruresis-- not quite the same thing, but close enough in a diagnostic category invented by people with easy access to toilets. Increased risk for renal stones is the first thing that comes to mind.

    I love your point that what people remember are the experiences.

    Safe travels, hugs!

  2. I think the men have more freedom in that way, but women often have to wait until after dark, risking getting attacked or assaulted.

    And thanks for the Google key words! I'll try those, but I find it a little sad that it's not better studied. We have a lot of problems in the US with certain occupations that leave people unable to access facilities. (Taxi driver is the first that comes to mind.)

    And thanks for reading. :)

  3. Don't forget teachers! Teachers get chronic UTI's from having to hold it all day too. As per our conversation today... women in professions that have to hold it all day also have a higher incidence of uterine prolapse. ya I saw you cringe