Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Latrine monitoring in K.T.

 Today I went to one of the project villages to look at the latrines being built.  It was the typical trip with lots of little things that I could mention, but usually don't because that requires more energy than I usually have in the evenings.  You're in luck because I just got back from a break and feel motivated to "take you along" on this village trip by sharing my observations of the day:

Every trip is a small adventure.  Before leaving town my driver and I made some calls to check security.  There was fighting overnight near the airport, so we took the rough road instead of the main.  A few kilometers down that road our Toyota Hilux truck started to wobble like a penguin.  I told the driver to let me drive so he could observe and try to figure out what it was.  So there’s the driver running beside me watching the front wheels.  It worked, he noticed the part of the suspension that was moving wildly from a missing bolt, and we limped it back to town to get said bolt.  20 minutes later we’re back on the road.

Our male staff are enthused that the second round of 20 latrines has been progressing much faster than the first 20.  The first took 2 months to complete, but in just 2 weeks many of the second round were well underway.  Makes sense, now that their harvest is over, they have time to do our physical projects.

Lunch was delicious salad, carmelized squash in sour cream, and rice with chickpeas (a feast to welcome me back from my trip to Am-ree-ka).  There was even pudding.  Wow, they hardly ever make pudding in the village.

Out we went on the walking tour of 30+ latrines.  The village is big, about a mile long and a quarter mile uphill in width.  The entire place is on a hillside so strewn with avalanched rocks you wouldn’t believe that over 75 families live there, but they do.  We walk up and down the hill to zigzag to all the homes with latrines.  I see a number of positive surprises along the way, including the number of latrines that had been ‘boosted’ into commode-style latrines by the homeowners.  I say ‘boosted’, because we do not include commode fixtures or extra plumbing with our program, our latrines are more basic slab and pit latrines.  It’s amazing to see that over 50% of the people in this village have gone out to buy themselves commode fixtures and piping to connect to a remote pit.  Months ago when I first heard about this idea I was skeptical because I feared there would be technical issues and it would come back at us.  Quickly I saw that lots of people were eager for commodes, because a number of men had seen them and worked on them in a neighboring country.  Now I can’t help but stand back and think this is excellent, because a commode is much better than the standard slab at controlling flies and smell, and the porcelain white fixture is a beautiful thing to see in a dusty village.

I’m humbled to see that some villagers have taken our program so serious that they have prioritized building their latrine over finishing their home.  Many new homes are being built in this village; people are constantly moving here from overpopulated mountain villages, and starting over here.  One man struggled to dig a 5-meter pit through dense rock, then bought 12 meters of 4” pvc pipe to drain the commode he installed in his house, to the pit down the hill outside.  He was so proud, and the latrine and wash space was truly well done by his own handiwork.  It was only as I left that I noticed his wife rocking an infant in a rickety wood cradle, in a room with no floor covering or windows.

Next stop is a house that looks just as simple and poor as the rest, but his latrine is visibly different; the interior of this latrine has been plastered and whitewashed!  This was not the only latrine that had been fancied up, there are several that have plastered walls and handwashing points with soap.  Some have even been turned into a latrine/washroom by enlarging the floor space, cementing the walls to knee-high, and installing a floor drain.  Then my mind was officially blown when I saw a toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on nails, on the wall of one washroom/latrine.  That’s the first time in 6 years that I’ve seen a toothbrush in a local home here, and it was out here in a poor dusty village. 

On we go, one latrine after another.  Some are average, but most look really good.  Then we find one with a green door and window frames.  Awesome

Later there is a curious latrine that does not have a roof yet, but the hole in the slab is covered.  This tells me that the family has put the latrine right to work, and applied what they learned in the training about keeping the slab covered.  Nevermind there’s no roof yet, there’s no rain this month.

Most of the latrines have covers on the slabs, which is great because this is something the project didn’t supply; they had to get their own.  One family used what looked like the cover for truck air cleaner.  Whatever works!

To be honest not all the latrines were up to snuff.  Several were made with the technical suggestions of a certain man who swore he was a well-trained engineer.  Unfortunately he suggested they overlap their 2-piece slanted tin roof the wrong way, and when the rain comes they will be getting dripped on when they go to their latrine.  I pointed this out, but as I suspected, they all chose the “we’ll wait and see” response.  That’s fine, it’s their latrine, made with their own hands, so if it needs to be fixed, I’m pretty sure they’ll do it. 

One of the big surprises of the day was learning that my lead staff took the liberty to let every man build his own latrine, and be paid the mason’s wage for that.  The plan had been that 3 masons would be contracted to build the more technical parts of the latrine, together with trainees at each house that would learn the construction techniques.  At first I was disappointed with my staff leader and planned to make an issue of how his choice would make the community more dependent, but then I decided to first go and see the result of his leadership.  We toured on a great day, because a number of men were literally putting the finishing touches on their latrines.  I saw the pride and satisfaction on their faces, and I heard their appreciation of our project finally making it possible for them to “quit being lazy” (the words of one man) and take care of their sanitation need.  I was reminded of two points I read recently in a book titled “Poor Economics”.  The authors of this book argue that development needs to be tested and researched according to how each unique people group responds to different types of support or assistance.  They suggest that a handout or incentive is not always a bad thing; perhaps the handout is what convinces people to act right away.  This might cause concern that they acted because of the incentive, or that they would get used to handouts.  On this point, however, the authors counter that perhaps it’s not handouts they get used to, perhaps they rather get used to latrines, and never allow themselves to go back to life without them. 

I was still thinking about these points when my staff started to ask me how we will proceed with the rest of the community.  That is the question isn’t it?  I mean, no matter what we have done, where is it going from here, and will we be able to affect change in sanitation outside of the area where we give away materials and pay builders?  My staff must get tired of hearing these types of questions from me.

By the end of the week I estimate 35-40 latrines will be done in this village.  The goal for the year is 75 total, and then we will do another round of hygiene training over the winter for the 50 new families (told you the village is growing fast) before we do any assistance with their latrines next year.  What we will probably do between this year and next is transition to a new phase in which we no longer pay for any labor on latrines, we only supply materials not found in the village.  Most of my staff think this will be a mistake because people will not tolerate being treated differently.  My staff leader, however, agrees with me, that once there is a critical mass of 75 latrine-using families in a village, the social pressure will be on the other 50 to get theirs done, and they will be more inclined to do the labor for free in order to catch up with the rest of the community.  I wouldn’t be so sure of this, except that the commodes, white-washed walls, and the toothbrush tell me that this community has “got” the message on hygiene and sanitation, and they should be able to handle the continuation of the latrine project as the outside organization takes steps back and lets them do it.

We will see!  Ask me later about this village that we call K.T.!


  1. I totally enjoyed this! You must be so pleased!!

  2. So amazing! Thank you for sharing this with us!