Monday, May 27, 2013

Racist toilet knick knack

When I saw this, I just had to share:

Yes, you saw that correctly. That is a black (presumably African) boy in an outhouse, with another one waiting. The text on the bottom says, "One moment please."

For only 50 dollars, you can be the proud owner of this. The Etsy description reads:

Old Black Americana Figurine, Little Boys Toilet Outhouse Collectible, Japan

Vintage ceramic Black Americana figurine statue depicting two African American little black boys at an outhouse. One is already using the toilet, as the other eagerly waits. Bottom of the outhouse reads, "One Moment Please".
Very very good condition for it's age, with some paint wear, but no chips or cracks.

Measures approx: 3" tall & 2" wide
Marked as shown: Occupied Japan / Made in Japan
I don't know much about Japanese culture (and I'm up to some other things currently), so I'm going to refrain from analyzing this one. But if you want some of my thoughts on people's fascination with the bodies of the Other, then check out an old post of mine, "Only brown people shit." 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Heroin users and the silence of shitting

***This post contains graphic content.***

Taking heroin makes you so constipated, it’s a nightmare…The heroin makes you constipated so you won’t go to the loo for a couple of weeks, two, three weeks. So then I’ll take, not a huge amount [of Epsom salts], but I always end up taking too much, but it does, it clears you out…Being constipated is quite nasty, and I mean horribly, horribly. It’s like bloody coal mining, the agony and the pain. Putting your bloody fingers up your bum to pull out bits of, like, fucking diamonds. It’s not nice, [it] really is not nice.

Neil sits at the table in his parents’ kitchen across from the interviewer. A freshly-washed suitcase dries out in the sun. Tomorrow, he’ll be leaving for three months of residential detox and rehabilitation for his heroin habit.


            In the April 2013 issue of Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness, Lucy Pickering, Joanne Neale, and Sarah Nettleton published “Recovering a Fecal Habitus: Analyzing Heroin Users’ Toilet Talk.” As part of their larger work on drug users, they found themselves talking to many of the heroin users about shitting—how agonizingly painful it is. Neil had been asked broadly about the physical effects of heroin, and instead of focusing on oblivion, sores, illness, drowsiness, contentment as many of the other users had done, he had focused on this: the painful betrayal of the body to do a basic function which Neil did not have to even think about before.
            We don’t talk about shitting very much. There is a silence around the topic. Even in Phillipe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg’s book, Righteous Dopefiend, a profoundly beautiful and detailed ethnography about homeless heroin users in San Francisco, constipation caused by heroin use was never mentioned. The literature on shit is pretty sparse in comparison to just about every other topic. We don’t talk about our bodily functions with other people; it’s part of being in society.
When we’re little, we learn how to use the porcelain potty, and then once we have mastered that, we also master the silencing of discussing our bodily functions. This trajectory is a mirror image of the one that has happened in human history. Historically, shitting was a communal act (see Roman public toilets or English peasants). We could talk about it. But as history as progressed, the silence and the taboos around bodily acts—farting, blowing one’s nose, shitting—have increased. Furthermore, it became a function of class. The upper classes did not want to smell like the lower class; by suppressing their bodies, by asserting control over them, they asserted their supremacy. This goes all the way back to the Cartesian mind/body dualism issue—the idea that mind and body are separate. In that frame, mind is usually privileged over the body. Controlling one’s body shows one’s strength of mind.
            In the authors’ narrative about the heroin users, the users were more open about their defecating when their excretory systems began to malfunction from the drugs. (Opioids increase the amount of time stool takes to move through the gastric system by increasing nonpropulsive contractions in the middle of the intestine and decreasing propulsive peristalsis—in other words, they make the muscles that move things through your intestines mess up.) As the drug users became increasingly marginalized in society, they also stopped partaking in the silencing of their body functions.
            More plainly, marginalized people suddenly get to talk about marginalized things. To reverse the equation, people who talk about marginalized things become marginalized. (What would happen if you started talking about shitting all the time? …Exactly.)
            So what if people really need to talk about defecating? If we put so many layers of silence on top of defecation, how can people really get the help they need? This is true not only for heroin users, but what about patients who are using opioid-based medications? The elderly who have problems managing their defecation? It’s embarrassing to talk about. If people feel like they can’t ask for help, when they do, we marginalize already marginalized populations.
            Pickering, Neale, and Nettleton delve into this silence in an academic space with a marginalized, ‘othered’ population. It’s a place to start, but only start. There’s a lot more that needs to be done to eliminate this cultural silence so we can help people better manage their bodies and lives.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Five reasons toilets and cell phones are different

For some reason, several of the sanitation-related articles I’ve read in the past few months have had the same statistic: on the planet today, there are more cell phones than toilets! (That’s only one link, but search ‘toilets and cell phones’ and you’ll see the ubiquity of the comparison. There is some slight variation in that some articles say that cell phone coverage is better than toilet coverage, but same idea.) GASP! We need to make toilets like the smart phones, says the Copenhagen Consensus report—we need to make everyone want one!

I’m not certain whey we ended up with this cell phone and toilet comparison. Maybe because we keep dropping our phones into toilets.

Whatever the reason, I’d like to suggest five reasons why toilets are not like cell phones.

1) One’s a necessity, and the other is a nicety.
Perhaps the reason that this comes up all the time is that from over here, cell phones are seen as a nicety, whereas toilets are a necessity. We remember a time without cell phones, right? We survived. But toilets—geeze, you need those. Right? And toilets are so low-tech. Ha ha—isn’t it so strange and quirky that people have cell phones but not toilets? (Note the subtext: weird foreigners with stupid priorities.)
However, think about people’s priorities. Cell phones let you do business. It’s quickly becoming a necessity for people at all levels—the rickshaw driver in India or the bajaj drive in Ethiopia needs to have a phone to conduct business. People use cell phones to let each other know the water tank prices so their relative the next village over doesn’t get ripped off. They use it for transferring funds and banking. Farmers can use it to find the best price for their goods
Toilets, on the other hand, are a good experience, but the financial benefit is indirect. It’s hard to point out to a community that hey, you saved money this year, because you built toilets and didn’t get sick. And to see real health effects, everyone in the community needs to get the toilet. One family without a toilet puts the whole community at risk.
So if you were someone in a developing context, which would you pick?

2) One people have control over, and it works.
You can have two kinds of toilets (it’s an over-simplification, but bear with me): self-managing, decentralized sanitation systems or state managed systems. There are also some NGO managed systems, but those are much more rare. The self-managed systems, such as composting toilets, pit latrines, or any other system that relies on the family or individual to directly manage the waste of their latrine, are often the ones that end up breaking down or not being maintained because maintenance can be expensive in terms of time and money.
State-managed systems, on the other hand, rely on the government to be in charge of the maintenance of the infrastructure that takes the waste away and (hopefully) do something with it that’s slightly better than dumping it in your backyard. This is what we have, and what many places strive to have. (Yes, the government won’t hire a plumber to deal with your toilet clog, but most of the waste management process is paid for with taxes.)  In many countries, the state is not managing these systems. If someone does choose to pay for a toilet, they must constantly invest to maintain the system, with time (as in scooping out a composting toilet) or money (like hiring a service to pump your tank). And this is for something that, as mentioned in #1, there is not necessarily a super-direct benefit that is evident.
Cell phones, on the other hand, you can buy from your local wala or shop owner and have a nicely functioning device with a system that is maintained by a series of entrepreneurs and corporations. You just have to put money in the system occasionally, which is a pretty simple process. You can charge your phone with as much money as you want or have. Other people can charge your phone. (One of the sweetest things someone has ever done for me was to charge my Indian cell phone from across the country so he could call me and tell me good-bye.)

3) One of these is more important to men.
Most articles talk about how good sanitation is positive for women and girls. This is something I agree with, especially when good sanitation facilities are coupled with water facilities that allow women to have good menstrual hygiene. But toilets are more important to women. Men can just piss in a corner. The argument too, that having a toilet increases prestige is more intimately tied into the female role as being the manager of the household. 
In most cultures, men are the primary earners. As mentioned above, cell phones are becoming a necessity for the acquisition of not only economic capital, but social capital as well (ie, making friends, creating a network of customers). Cell phones support male roles; toilets are a more feminine issue. Given that men still usually control financial flows (I’m sure we can complicate that claim, but can we just not right now?), men are going to be more likely to spend money on a cell phone than a toilet.

4) One of these items deals with shit.  
With the possible exception of Japan, people aren’t into toilets much as a commodity item. It’s a place where we perform one of our most taboo bodily functions. Smart phones, on the other hand, you can pull out of your pocket—show your friends. Look up where you saw that one actress. Find directions. Play games. Distract a two year old. Smart phones are all about active utility.
Toilets, on the other hand, tend to have a much more passive utility—they don’t really do something awesome. Toilets are awesome—they make solid waste disappear so we don’t ingest as much of it. It means I can not have a smelly neighborhood. But again, that’s a passive utility. It’s a prevention mechanism. We’re glad it happens, but we (generally) don’t get excited about it. Smart phones you get excited over and show your friends. Toilets are about concealing a body function we’re incredibly ashamed of.

5) The world does not need as many toilets as cell phones.
Think about it. Yes, there are more cell phones than toilets, but how many people will use a single cell phone? Often times, about one. Maybe a whole family. Cell phones often need to be with you for them to be of use, limiting the number of users a single cell can have. Toilets, on the other hand, can be used by dozens of people. Yes, some articles compare cell phone coverage with toilet coverage, which is a far better way to talk about it, but others cite raw numbers. 

So yes, there are other reasons that cell phones are not like toilets. (Only one of them is supposed to be sat on.) It’s still a tragic statistic, especially when you discuss it in terms of coverage and not just numbers. But making this comparison threatens people to try to find solutions in the realm of cell phones. These are not the same problem. Cell phones have found success in Africa in great part because of market deregulation, but given that toilets often have little direct benefit, are gendered problems, deal with human shit, and require an extensive cleaning process, will the free market really tackle the sanitation problem?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Coming back

Hello readers!

So, I took a far longer hiatus than expected--a master's exam, finals exam period, and some family things later, I'm trying to get back on the saddle again. (Why does that sound like a toilet euphemism?)

I've been seriously considering shutting down the blog--it takes a lot of time, and I keep getting the sneaky feeling that the only reason my page hit count is so high is because when you Google image search "Roman sponge stick" an old post of mine is one of the top results. I got discouraged about the endeavor--I felt like I was talking to myself.

But when I logged in to write my "farewell world" post, I saw that some of my old posts have hit counts that aren't from Google image searches. So maybe--hopefully--someone is reading my blog who didn't just end up here because they were Googling "Roman sponge stick." (Who the heck DOES that, anyway? Besides me.)

So well, yes, I'm coming back, and yes, I'll work on a post with actual content. I still would LOVE to have guest contributors--on anything, really. If you want ideas, I will share ideas with you.

Thanks all, and I'll be posting soon!