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February 19, 2019

Tribalism and public toilets

Visit almost any public buildings in Kenya and one thing that you will not find is a usable public toilet. If you foolishly left home not prepared or in the company of children then you are faced with certain choices and consequences. Depending on the urgency, your rank in society and who you are going to see in the office building you may have the privilege of asking one of the staff to allow you to use, their usually locked, facility. If you are of a high enough rank, you may even be allowed to use the boss’s own VIP washrooms and so not suffer being offered the use of space that may or may not meet the proper definition of a toilet. If you do not have any such luck then the choice is perhaps to visit one the shopping malls that every major town now has. Each has been considerately designed with the public in mind and so there are toilets. However, almost all struggle with how to manage the toilets effectively. It is not uncommon to be asked to pay some user fees or show proof that you have bought something in one of the shops to be allowed to use the toilets. Leaving home requires careful bladder planning.

You might imagine that the problem is better in the home. It is not. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 billion people were still without improved sanitation in 2010, approximately 1.1 billion people practice open defecation. These people are found in two regions; Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, 45 per cent of the population use either shared or unimproved facilities, and an estimated 25 per cent practice open defecation. Kenya despite being made up of hardworking resilient people with good education compared to other African countries is very average when it comes to any social or health indicator. In 2012, only 59 per cent of the population had access to safe water supplies while access to improved sanitation was a dismal 32 per cent of the population. The Millennium Development Goal 7 (MDG7) Target 10 is to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Kenya will not be meeting this target. There are good reasons why.

Basic sanitation is where there are facilities that ensure hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact. Systems to do this include: a Flush or pour-flush toilet/latrine connected to a piped sewer system, a septic tank or a pit latrine; a ventilated improved pit latrine; or pit latrine with slab and composting toilet. Of the four systems a pit latrine is most promoted in rural areas because Kenya has limited renewable water supply and is classified as a water scarce country. However pit latrines are not a viable option in urban areas. Unregulated urban growth is therefore a major challenge in any town or city where water supply and basic infrastructure investment is lacking. One might imagine that we are faced with something new, but more than 4,000 years ago people in north-west India had a toilet system that flushed into underground pipes then drains. Two thousand years ago, ancient Romans homes had decent plumbing and public toilets were social meeting places. In Kenya, you have to be very high end, or a complete thug or a cigarette smoker to consider hanging around any public sanitation facility. And that, perhaps is the problem with Kenya.

Most Kenyans live in their tribally designated county. Most live in what they call home, that is your parents and grandparents were born around there and therefore there is some attachment to the land. Neighbours are relatives of sorts. When a Kenyan has to leave home to go into another part of the country, the first problem they will face is what happens when I need to ‘go’? Not every town has a mall. Given the difficulties, the best option it to limit any journey to one that can be accomplished within bladder range. Traveling with children is therefore a major accomplishment best done when they are much older and able to ‘hold’. In the end, we have a population that is parochial and unaware that they share the same problems across the country. The elite who can afford access to toilets as they move around therefore have a major advantage. Is it any wonder that ‘tribalism’ is a problem in Kenya? Travel is good education. Roads are being built, but we need clean efficient public toilets to make proper use of them and transact business without being pressed.


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