'Funerals and sanitation in Africa are closely related': personal reflections on taking CLTS back to our own communities

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It feels like more than a year since I blogged. No sooner did I come back to work on the 9th January 2012 than was I forced by circumstances to take compassionate leave to be with my mother and family after our dear sister (my immediate follower) passed on. It was painful but we are adjusting to the loss. Funerals and sanitation in Africa are closely related. We could not help but quickly agree with my family that with the influx of many people coming to console the family and to attend the burial itself, that we needed do something.

Mourning periods in Kenya last for long. For my community (Kamba) which comes from southern part of eastern province bordering Tsavo National Park, such ceremonies could last up to two weeks and even after the burial people keep coming to console the family. As far as sanitation goes, if a family does not have adequate sanitation facilities, there is a huge risk of open defecation around the home. In Kenya there have been cases where cholera outbreaks have been traced back to homes where burials were taking place. In our case it did not take a triggering exercise to decide to put up a new two-door toilet block in addition to the other two we had. The digging of a thirty feet hole which was communally done took only 2 days. Bricks were bought from a nearby church. We had to buy 3 pieces (at 10 US$ each) of corrugated iron sheets, 3 bags of cement (at 10US$ each). Timber was donated by a friend and we had to buy a few other things for the toilet block to be completed. I had to recommend leaky tin for the hand washing facility. I had seen an improved one at my sister’s place who is a community health worker volunteer with the Kenya Red Cross. This got me thinking about how much it would cost to construct the so called Ventilated Improved Latrine (VIP) in rural Kenya today. Cost for construction materials have really gone high. My quick arithmetic showed that it would cost not less than 17, 000 Ksh (200 US$). This got me thinking on our previous approaches to sanitation that sought to promote specific models of latrines some costing even more than 500 U$. In arid and semi arid land regions such as where I come from, a family would need to part with 5 goats to put up such a facility.

Surely with 50% of Kenyan population living on less than 1 dollar a day there is a strong case to be made for adopting Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) which advocates for ending open defecation with communities making choices on what materials and technology to use based on their abilities. If a family lives in a grass thatched house it would make perfect sense for them to come up with a sanitation facility made of similar materials. This is not say there is no room for moving up the sanitation ladder. I remember I dug the first toilet in my family. I was only 12 years old. All my life I had defecated in the open and so did my parents. The facility I triggered my parents to build was very simple. With time my late father, who was actually an artisan trained from the Kabete Jeans College in Nairobi during the colonial period, had to utilize his skills and enable the family go up the sanitation ladder. Sometimes I just wonder why an artisan of his calibre who had lived and worked in Nairobi would join his family in open defecating. Now that I am a CLTS practitioner the answer is simple- he had not been triggered to transform his mind. It took a 13 year old (me) to introduce him and the family after a home science lesson with my teacher.

Later my father was to utilize his skills to construct a latrine and bathroom block more beautiful than the house we lived in – it met the JMP indicators of an improved sanitation. But to date (33 years later) there are families in my village where people defecate in the open. Lately I have been thinking I cannot continue going round Kenya, Africa and the World triggering people to stop open defecation while people in my ancestral village, some of them my relatives, continue to defecate in the open. I have been on a vernacular radio station broadcast and talked about shit but possibly only my close relatives listened. For sure not even media or radio campaigns can compare with the power of hands-on triggering exercise. People listening hear but they do not see and feel as they would when they participate in a practical CLTS exercise. Will I live to the challenge of triggering people in my own village? How will people who know me since I was small think of me talking straight about shit? I have done this straight talk with my mother my sisters and brothers and it has worked. What is left is for me to expand to my aunties, uncles and neighbours in the village.

Possibly if each one of us in Kenya took it upon themselves, the campaign for Open Defecation Free Rural Kenya by 2013 would not require any donor funding. Possibly the MDG target of halving the number of people with access to improved sanitation would be a walk in the park. So why is it hard to do? Do we theorize and professionalize things too much? A we really ready to work ourselves out of the job or are we in the business of keeping ourselves in the job? Do we need to rethink our commitment and role in creating open defecation free societies within our communities? We need to infect every one with the bug and become natural leaders in our own communities as CLTS projects (one-off and time bound) may not be the magic bullet to ending open defecation.

Date: 1 February 2012