Bats in My Latrine

My mother recalls that after I returned from the Peace Corps, I would talk about anything at any time, even if it wasn’t proper “dinner table” talk. What she was mostly referring to were stories I told about latrines and diarrhea. Here in the U.S., we have no problem telling others we have a headache. Similarly, people in many places I’ve lived would just as comfortably talk about their intestinal problems and how often they make trips to the toilet.

Because many developing countries suffered from inadequate sanitation, diarrhea is a huge problem. The most common toilets in poor communities are pit latrines. Properly installed and maintained they can function as a safe and effective sanitation system for a family. Poorly done, they can help spread disease (tainting nearby water supplies) and sometimes be downright scary – and even dangerous. I speak from experience. In the mud house I rented (yes, you can rent a mud house) as a Peace Corps volunteer, the pit latrine was in the back yard, a considerable distance from my back door. The outhouse had the prerequisite opening in the cement floor, with the waste pit below. But it lacked something important – a covering for the opening. One night, I learned the hard way that bats liked to spend time down in that pit. Suffice to say that when their exit was partially blocked, they wasted no time in flying out, much to my surprise.

Next week, we will be celebrating World Toilet Day. Yes, it does sound like an unusual thing to celebrate. But ChildFund is well aware that diarrhea is not a humorous story; globally, this disease is the second leading killer of children under 5 years old, claiming the lives of 1.5 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Many of ChildFund’s programs around the world include a sanitation component, an important part of our fight to reduce the death rates of children under 5 and to ensure that children stay healthy. With World Toilet Day still a week off, I might share another story or two that my mother wouldn’t approve. Stay tuned.

An iPhone Versus a Toilet

Every month when I open the bill for my home phone, I always debate, should I drop the land line? Since cell phones (and, yes, I have an iPhone) have become the norm for everyday communications, why spend the money for a home phone I hardly use?

I know I’m not the only one in the U.S. having this personal debate; yet, in many developing countries another debate plays out. Cell phones have been a positive boon to many developing countries that have a limited communications infrastructure. When I lived in Somalia, I never answered my home phone because it was never for me – no one I knew had a personal line.

Seemingly overnight, cell phones gave developing countries an opportunity to make a leap forward. Improved communications offer benefits on multiple levels: health, economic, educational and social. Uganda and Kenya are opening up more telecommunications and telebanking opportunities for its citizens via mobile technology. As mobile catches on, it will be possible for people to pay their bills, their loans, even their taxes via their cell phones.

Within the last decade it seems that even the poor now have a cell phone, or access to one. But cell phones and minutes cost money. And that’s the debate in developing countries. Families are weighing whether to pay for a phone versus a toilet – and the cell phone has won.

When I travel the developing world for ChildFund, I sometimes meet families who have a cell phone (no iPhones; just inexpensive mobile phones) but no indoor toilet. Or they might have access to cell phone in their neighborhood but also have to share a community latrine versus having private latrine for the family.

Poor sanitation is a huge problem in many countries. Some 24,000 children die every year from diarrhea and other preventable illnesses. So many serious health problems stem from lack of hygiene and sanitation. And, yet, toilets are often not a priority.

Sometimes it’s the multiple benefits that cell phones bring to a family that tip the scale to spend limited resources on a mobile phone versus a toilet. Other times, it’s who holds the decision-making power - clean, accessible toilets are more important for women than men, but women may not hold the family purse strings.

But, honestly, sometimes it’s a matter of owning the latest thing – people living in poverty share the same human “gadget” desire as the rest of us. The challenge: how can we make toilets a highly desirable status symbol, more important than the coolest gadget?

Kenya's growing mobile phone network

Kenya’s growing mobile phone network.