Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ms. G – The theory of Shit

As warned before, I will continue my, for most people boring, dive through the muddy sewage of theory even here. Sorry for that, here’s something more fun and representative of my own state of mind in doing this.


How does a society actually come to choose a certain way of getting rid of garbage and human waste? By the workings of research by smarter people, we've been presented with a conceptual model, a theory. Here, the ‘way of getting rid of garbage and human waste’ is called a ‘societal sanitation approach’, which is constructed (=created) in different ways in different cultures. At the level of the single household, the task of sanitation and waste management is to ensure a healthy living environment by handling human and household wastes in the safest possible way with regard to both humans and the natural environment. What that way actually is depends on the culture as well as the environment. In this model, the societal sanitation approach is divided into five stages of the individual sanitation experience (the most euphemistic way of saying ‘Taking a dump’ I've found so far) that are further divided into components that decide the actions an individual takes to attend to the urge.

1.       The Urge. The natural urge to relieve one is the primary driver behind the need for sanitation systems. The two components of this first stage are whether one feels a need to urinate or defecate, which plays a role in the decision-making of the individual (where to go and how to ‘just do it’). Nothing needs explanation there, I bet. How the urge is experienced and reacted upon is to some extent dependent on gender and age, as the requirements felt can differ between men, women and children.

2.       Place – the favorite word of geographersThe second priority in the sanitation approach is the need to find privacy and enough safety for answering to the primal urge. This brings into consideration the question of place, meaning where to actually make your mark. This is decided by “the contexts of the physical living environment as well as the specific situation”, meaning where you are and why. The behaviour of an individual feeling the same urge can and does often vary, for instance between home and public places (such as school or the workplace), between rural and urban settings and between activities taking place, e.g. attending a meeting or a party. Anyone can confirm this from personal experience.

3.       Process. The third step is the actual use of the toilet. This includes the posture taken by the individual (whether you prefer sitting or standing – not always a straightforward decision, you know) and the convenience required (and sometimes even met). All this depends on the particular culture, habits and gender of the individual.

4.       Hygiene. The fourth stage involves attending the hygienic needs, in particular cleaning yourself and the immediate making of enough distance between you and your waste by for instance flushing. These needs are taken care of in different ways depending on e.g. the availability of water, the particular technical solution being used and cultural aspects. For example some like to wipe themselves while others prefer washing with water.

5.       Waste disposal. The last stage of the societal sanitation approach is that of final waste disposal, which also decides what effect you have on the natural environment. This obviously depends on the technology available. It should be pointed out that this disposal of waste might be seen as final only from the perspective of the users of a sanitation system (meaning that flushing is not final disposal, really).

Of course, the attitude of a culture towards the primal urge, human excreta and the handling of it is only a part of the explanation of the sanitation solutions a population ends up using. Therefore, we need a more comprehensive and detailed (in short, a better) conceptual model of the system that strives to explain and understand a societal sanitation approach more comprehensively. So we need another model to understand the first one? I see the beginning of a vicious circle here... This concept involves four main factors that play varying roles in shaping the sanitation approach: The human settlement, the natural environment, the culture and the society.

“The human settlement is in the framework seen as the built environment that facilitates the preferred lifestyle of a community or society, also with regard to sanitation.” It explains where we live and how, and I’m sorry to confess that the quote came from my pen... The characteristics of the human settlement that most clearly affect the sanitation approach are the density and the natural setting of the community. In more densely populated areas, such as towns, toilets are more often preferred to be inside the house to avoid moving out of the home for excreting as we all understand. Meanwhile in rural areas, at least in developing countries toilets are more often built outside to prevent odors in the actual home (That one is not unheard of in rural Finland either), and even open defecation (doing it in the bush) is more often practiced in sparsely populated areas where privacy is easier to ensure. Sharing toilets with other households is also generally more easily accepted in urban areas due to lack of space, while in rural areas the privacy and exclusiveness for the household of the toilet is emphasized. On the communal level densely built areas tend to create and neglect more extensive infrastructure, such as a sewage system, serving or supposed to be serving a larger amount of households, while waste disposal is in rural areas seen more as the responsibility of each household. 

The surrounding natural environment decides to a large extent the characteristics of the human settlement and therefore also its waste management. The most important features of the natural environment are in this case water accessibility (is flushing even possible?), vegetation type, climate (dry climates make handling a lot easier) and terrain (Do you have to worry about your garbage flowing to the neighbour’s next time it rains? Or someone else’s running to your backyard?). For example, in densely populated and humid areas where water access is reliable throughout the year, different forms of flush toilets have been in use for the longest time. In dry areas waste is more often buried or left in the open as the dry environment is in itself an effective tool of treating waste. Most importantly the natural environment plays an important role in deciding whether a community is faecophilicor faecophobic.

As with all other aspects of human life and behavior, culture, to a varying degree formed by religion, controls the sanitation approach of a society. Islam considers human waste to be in general dangerous and bad and relies on different concepts of ‘unclean’ in restricting the handling and even discussion of human excreta. As for the bible, it makes next to no mention on either excreta disposal or its reuse. Buddhism even clearly promotes the reuse of all waste, a stance that is connected to the general notion of reincarnation. Some cultures consider excreta to be always filthy regardless of religion and stress the need to avoid contact with it. It is normal in such cultures that sanitation facilities are placed outside the home. It is reported that even witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs comes into it in some societies especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly stemming from traditional religions that dominated in pre-colonial times. This is when maybe the strongest of cultural values, fear, is connected to human waste. Even here in the Taita Hills, outsiders handling someone’s poo can be seen as suspect to say the least. The governor himself lately had to address this, advising people to “to stop prioritizing witchcraftand find ways of enhancing development in the region”! 

Cultures also vary in exactly how offensive excreta are considered. When it comes to cultural meanings attached to human excreta, it is also important to note that a distinction is usually made between pee and poo and that the same values might not apply to both. These cultural values can have implication for e.g. how people working with handling human waste are treated and whether or not it is considered as suitable to only certain social segments. Who would like to be seen as a witch only for working in waste management, hey?

Messy, isn’t it?

I apologize to anyone who read the whole post, got a bit carried away there...

Monday, 2 December 2013


Kenyans seem to be very fond of big time events and ceremonies. Lately, I’ve witnessed two.

Despite of its remarkable natural beauty, the Taita Hills are not that well known to the outside world. Given the state of the roads here, I’d put that down to a question of accessibility, but the local decision makers are not giving up that easily. It’s a question of fame, they say! So what you do is you organize a big thing, in lack of a better word to describe it with. You contract some local pop starlets to perform, and most importantly you pay to have the top three football teams in the country play games on the central stadium (a description that is more than slightly exaggerated from the European point of view), the fourth team attending being a collection of local heroes called Taita Combined (Note: They did not call it Taita United).

And so the whole community gathers on this patch of grass with a goal in both ends. As is the custom here, no numbers are given or estimated, but I would say the attendance easily reaches five digit numbers. And of course there’s no chance of a cloudy day, not to mention a shady spot to sit down on. In the first game Taita Combined meets the reigning Kenyan champions, Gor Mahia. It’s a slaughter, but what I remember from the game is the celebration that ensued as Taita managed to score that one precious goal, despite already being 0-4 down. On a stadium where the line between the field and ‘the stands’ is very fluid and with one policeman around keeping order, it was no surprise that the field was in a blink of an eye flooded with cheering Taitas, hugging everything in red, singing songs, blowing vuvuzelas and dancing. After quite some time, when I was about to make the decision to leave, the game continued and Goliath scored a few more goals. No one cared. In the following game, the big national favorites, the Leopards, took a beating that was on par with that seen in the first match.

What I found a bit worrying was that some of the spectators had clearly carried from home rocks instead of snacks. I’ve heard of throwing items on the pitch in fanatic football cultures, but this seemed a bit too much… In the end, they were not used on the players but on fellow supporters! I was apparently in a section exclusively for sitting down. Get up, get hit! Some did, with painful consequences.

Big Man comes
But that wasn’t all. On half-time of the second match, the unmistakable sound of helicopter wings could be heard. A big boss had decided to make an appearance, and landed flat in the middle of the football field, sending players, officials and fans scattering to all directions. Speeches were held in Swahili, there were standing ovations, but still to this day I don’t know who the big boss was. Some say it was the local governor (in Kiswahili called, imaginatively, gavana), some say it was the deputy president William Ruto himself, supposed to be in The Hague for all I know…

Anyway, after hours in the sun, we all staggered home roasted and exhausted. I pity those who live out of walking distance: there was enough public transport for about one percent of the people. There was something about the rawness and stripped down execution of the event that made the experience so much more intense than something similar back home. No order, no services, only the core of the happening itself. (The same, by the way, goes for the East Africa Safari Classic, which surprisingly returned to Taita seven days after leaving town.)


The chaotic view left by such an event on a communal gathering place with little waste management is beyond description. This is where the second event comes in. After a week of beholding the field of polythene bags, beer cans and other trash that once was the football stadium, a pride of the community, someone decided to do something. An NGO called the Taita Environment Initiative (TEI) took the initiative to pick up the trash, if only slightly late, mobilizing other community based groups and ending up with about one hundred people (farmers, students, scouts…) cleaning up the mess.

During an interview with the fine people at TEI, I was naturally invited with one day’s notice. Me being a mzungu running around town asking questions on, among other things, waste management and the collection system, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. So I went there, sat on stage for the opening ceremonies (as what some have in other contexts called the ‘token white man’) and gathered garbage for an hour. For some minutes during that morning, I felt like a celebrity:  Nothing tells more about the sick twists of history and global relations than noticing that a few Kenyans are filming a white man picking up trash in a public space. Anyway, good deed of the year done!

I don’t want to take anything away from an awareness-raising event such as this. Of course, it is a good step towards making a community cleaner, but what is easily forgotten is that it is just plain wrong that waste collection is allowed to become a special event in the communal routine, instead of the continuous activity it should be. If someone (What about the organizers of the first event?) would take their responsibility, such ‘cleaning days’ would not and should not be needed. And still, the centering of trash to piles only goes so far if no containers are provided. Piles can of course be collected by truck, but it’s hardly a sustainable solution, given everything from rain and wind to animals in spreading that garbage again. And of course, this cleaning day only concentrated on collecting the waste and transporting it to big dumpsites, but there were not many mentions on the final disposal of the waste. I assume it is still burned. Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opportunity to talk also about recycling?