Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why you shouldn't go indoors - Two toilet stories

Latrine and boy. (

This past week, I attended a meeting of child survival “stakeholders” hosted by UNICEF and the Swazi Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. I will fill you in on the details of this meeting before too long.

In the interim, I wanted to share two interesting tales related to water closets. These were extemporaneously delivered by two of my Swazi colleagues at the end of the second day of the two-day meeting.

Story time was not part of the meeting agenda, but rather stemmed from a series of technical difficulties. Intermittent power-outages had confused the PowerPoint projector, and the conference had temporarily ground to a halt.

Sharing stories, as you all know, is a nice way to spend time. (I hope this is the case, for it the primary premise of this blog.)

As far as stories go, I am always impressed by how animatedly folks embrace the topic of toilets in particular. It certainly was a common theme growing up in the Phelps household in Denison, Texas.

Even better is when potty stories are juxtaposed with a very important but admittedly dry health policy debate. In this setting, the animation doubles and the audience is all the more riveted.

My written version of the narratives below will be abridged and at times paraphrased, and I assure you it will be no substitute for the real thing.

[Before I continue, by way of justifying the following content, let me point out that there are nineteen officially designated “high impact child survival interventions” that comprise the modern-day, global strategic framework for keeping children under five years old alive. One of the nineteen is “use of improved sanitation”. Another is “use of improved drinking water.” Hold that thought, as I will revisit it at the end of this entry.]


Toilet story #1 (told by a high-level Ministry of Health and Social Welfare official):

“People, I have a problem. It is with my mother-in-law.”

She stood and walked to the center of the room.

“She won’t use the toilet.”

Confused glances circulated the room.

“I mean, she won’t use the toilet in my house.”

“Why?” a UNICEF rep asked.

“Yeah, why?” the World Vision attendee echoed.

“Because it is inside the house,” she said, as if that was somehow a clarification.

She went on to say, “Can you help me?”

“How about a pit in the garden?” said a voice in the corner, perhaps that of the Lutheran Development Services member.

“She says it is too close to the house,” answered the MOHSW official.

“How about a pit latrine?” was the suggestion of Save the Children’s liaison.

“How does that differ from a pit?”

“Privacy?” Red Cross answered.

“Maybe,” one of the orphanage coordinators said, “you can go farther away from the house.”

“Too many neighbors.”

A nun with another orphanage said, “Can’t you just dig a hole wherever she wants?”

“She is not comfortable with a hole in the garden…”

Ten seconds of silence.

We had run out of ideas.

“My mother-in-law is so strange.”

“No,” objected the representative of the Boy Scouts of Swaziland. “This is common.”

“Oh, I thought it was just my mother-in-law.”

“No, this is quite common,” he repeated. Many in the room were nodding.

“Wait wait!”

We all wait-waited, hoping that the gentleman speaking, who reprensented the Traditional Healers Organization, had a solution for us.

Instead, he said, while jumping to his feet, “I have a story!”


Story #2 (no intended pun)

He told the tale in SiSwati, with great to-do, and translated it afterwards. The translated version was something like this:

“Let me share another problem about toilets…Mmm.

[In Swaziland, “Mmm” is a common, how shall I say, rhetorical insertion, used to signify an inferred consensus when a suggestion is made and nobody objects. It is as if to say, ‘As there is no dissent, I will continue now.’]

He continued, “Last week, one of children had an accident, the type one has before training to use the toilet.”

[By the way, in much of southern Africa, the words ‘washroom’, ‘bathroom’, ‘restroom’, ‘loo’, ‘little boy’s room’, etc. are rarely used. The best word for the room (and the seat) is ‘toilet’.]

“The other children thought the accident was amusing, and so I took the opportunity to shout at them.”

“I said, ‘I do not want somebody in my family who indiscriminately disposes of human excrement in my house!’”. He shouted as if he were really shouting at his kids, firmly but kindly.

With a look of half light-heartedness, half dismay, the storyteller continued.

“Then, one of my son’s said in response: ‘Dad, so this means that we are that kind of people that you talk about, because we use the toilet in the house.’”

The room erupted into laughter and applause.

End of story #2.


While I initially did not understand story #1 (i.e. how one could possibly have an aversion to using an indoor toilet or prefer an outdoor option), story #2 (and the audience’s response) helped me better understand why one might have this preference.


Ten percent of the Swazi children who do not live to have a fifth birthday die of diarrhea. Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, the pillars of diarrhea prevention, depend on the time-tested adage “don’t poop where you eat.”

AIDS-related infections kill 47% of under-fives in Swaziland, and good water and sanitation practices prevent many of these infections.

Where and how one decides to evacuate does not only make for entertaining stories; it also prevents or invites disease.

So, while I am not going to boycott the comforts and familiarity of indoor WCs, I will say that the mother-in-law and child do make a good point.


Post a Comment

<< Home