Oh Glorious Toilet!

Latrines at National Islamic Primary School, Up Town Bar Community, Sierra Leone

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 latrine.

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 unfortunate accidents.

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 true.

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 toilet.

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 facilities!

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 toilet.

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.

 

Posted at 09:06

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