It is a lovely morning. The sun is shining. I am at a pediatric
HIV clinic in a tiny town called Webuye that is in western Kenya on
the bumpy highway that leads west to Uganda.
I am in Webuye, and I am locked in the latrine. Yes, in the
I have been working in Kenya for half of the year since 2006,
and my toileting habits have adjusted themselves accordingly. I no
longer expect toilet seats or toilet paper as I rarely find those
things in Kenya. I have learned to squat. I always carry my own
tissue. I know how to hold my long skirts so as to prevent
And I can use the bathroom anywhere. I will use a pit behind
someone's tiny mud house. I can pee in the bushes along the road
(although I did get my hair massively tangled in thorns while
peeing in the bushes last week - so much so that I almost had to
call the other occupants of the car to come free me.) I will
go into the most slimy, dark latrine.
But now, I am locked in one of those.
The floor is slippery and dark with substances that I would
rather not put a name too. Mosquitoes are swarming slowly out of
the hole in the floor. There is no light in a latrine like this,
but the rickety wooden walls leave enough gaps that the sunshine
peeks in just enough to get a sense for where the important things
in the latrine are (namely, the hole.) Someone locked the outside
door, and I am left banging on the slimy door and calling for help.
(I do not know the precise Swahili words for "I am locked in the
latrine", but my desperate cries translated well enough.)
You would think this would be the toilet story that makes me
long for the US. You would think that being locked in the nasty
latrine rises to the top when I think about toilet frustrations in
this country. But you would be wrong.
Being stuck inside with the mosquitoes and the stinky, dark
filth may be my grossest toilet story from Kenya, but somehow it
goes with the territory. (Says the girl who has been locked in
bathrooms in Kenya before -- locked in and out of her house in
various states of dress and undress.)
What I hate the most, what I have not been able to adjust to,
what makes me long for the glorious public restrooms of America
with their ample supplies of soft toilet paper and their non-broken
toilet seats, is being locked OUT of the bathrooms in Kenya.
That's right, locked out. Oh, what I would give to be able to
walk right into the bathrooms of Kenya…. The latrines, the toilets
-- even the toilets in the hospital and in the clinic building
where I work -- are always locked. The keys are hidden away with a
select and powerful group of people that I am generally unable to
identify. The urge to use the toilet (which happens often
because of mysmall bladderhighly efficient kidneys) is followed by
an increasingly desperate search for someone, somewhere with a key
to the bathroom. The frustration of not having easy access to the
bathroom just down the hall from my office is a frustration to
which I have not been able to resign myself.
Yesterday was one of my most exciting days at work, not because
of the children's lives saved (although I do love that), but
because I GOT MY OWN KEY TO THE BATHROOM. I cannot tell you how
this brightened my entire outlook on life. Ridiculous, but
I can use the bathroom whenever I want! No more combing the
halls for an unlocked toilet on a different floor! No desperate
search for someone, somewhere with the magical power! No more
begging! I will probably be traveling to Eldoret from miles away
just so I can use this toilet that I can unlock WHENEVER I WANT.
(Can you tell how excited I am?) Very excited. This may be the most
capital letters I have ever used in a blog post.
But here is the thing that would make me even more excited: I
wish I could give every girl in the world her own key to a
The truth is, safe and accessible toilet facilities keep girls
in school. Girls who stay in school are significantly healthier and
they have dramatically more possibilities open to them. They have
fewer babies and their babies are much more likely to live and to
grow. Education is one of the most effective weapons against
poverty and for economic empowerment. Girls who stay in school can
change the world.
But girls need toilets to stay in school. Seriously. In many
parts of the world, girls stay home from school every day that they
are menstruating -- several days a month -- because their schools
do not have hygienic, private latrines where they can change and
clean themselves. When girls miss that much school, they often stop
going altogether. In India, almost a quarter of girls drop out of
school when they reach puberty, and this is one of the reasons.
Girls may not need an actual toilet, but they do need bathroom
Now that I do not have mounting rage and frustration every time
I am attempting to access the bathroom in my building, I'm going to
try to channel some part of that energy into this idea of bathrooms
for the other girls of the world, the ones who need them much more
than me. Here's a start -- the World Toilet
Day petition to remind the world leaders of their commitments to
sanitation Sign on behalf of all the girls locked out of (or
inside) the latrine. Sign in shared celebration of access to the
Another idea? Make sure that girls have sanitary pads. Our
Orphans and Vulnerable Children program does that, and it can
make all the difference too. $15 is enough for what a girl needs
for the entire year. Stay in school. Stay in school.