Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Revolution of Hearts and Bowels

Most other Volunteers in the Water Sanitation Sector have degrees in civil engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering or architecture, one of us has worked for urban hazmat disposal programs, anther individual has worked for more than a decade designing and managing water sanitation infrastructure on the municipal level. Likewise, a number of them find it somewhat deprecating that my primary qualification for Water Sanitation was my prior stint guarding lives at the Oakridge Condominiums pool. But the more that I think about it, the more I realize that I am a perfect fit for this sector, not just because of my practical experience testing the water quality, adding chlorine and adjusting the pump. The most important thing I learned how to do as a lifeguard was how to walk around watching what everyone’s doing and when I saw people do things that were unsafe, unsanitary or just plain stupid I would blow my whistle and bellow how they should conduct themselves in a normative scenario; “No Running” “No Diving in the Shallow End!” “No Peeing in the Pool!”

The more I think about it, I distinctly remember that when I was applying I had to fill out a sheet explaining in precise detail every single task thing I have ever done at every single job I ever had, I definitely wrote that during my three glorious summers at Oakridge every morning before I opened and every afternoon before I closed the pool I had to mop the bathrooms, spray disinfectant, restock the toilet paper rolls and when little kids missed the bowl completely and diarrheaed all over the place I was the lucky guy whose job it was to get down on my knees and scrub that toilet seat until it was so clean I could see my reflection.

So I can easily imagine my recruiter looking over my application to the Peace Corps and thinking “This guy Zachary Mason says that he enjoys organizing political campaigns in his spare time… and he has years of professional experience cleaning toilets... Hm… I know – we should him a Water Sanitation Extension Agent!”

So I was walking down the road past the Sanadougou elementary school one morning when I was dismayed to find a girl maybe 10 years old and certainly old enough to know better squatting in a field along the road taking a whiz. I’ve become inured to seeing babies age 1 to 3 running around with only a string of beads around their waist so that they could poop and pee as they please, but seriously, 10 years old? Right along the road along which every one of her classmates walks on their way to school? In Malian society all adults in the village are at liberty to discipline children when necessary, and so when I see kids doing things that are beyond the pale I have become reacclimated to issuing decrees as though I were sitting in the lifeguard chair with a styrofoam buoy in my lap.

“Don’t Pee There!!! It is Bad!!! People Can See You!!!”

The girl was clearly embarrassed and pulled up her dress and ran back to class. But then as I walked around the latrine I saw another girl squatting down peeing in the field. And another, and another, and a group of boys all peeing together. Something was clearly wrong.

“Goddammit, there are brand new latrines right next to you so why are you all pissing out in the open?!?!?!?!”

A boy told me that they couldn’t go pee in the latrines because the doors were locked.

I was furious.

I ran over to find Karitie who is the Primary Cycle Director and has the only set of keys to the latrines. I barked that it was unconscionable to lock them closed during the school day and demanded that he open the doors at once.

“It is the children’s fault! The children urinate and defecate in the nyegen and they never clean up! I told the children many times that they have to clean up after themselves or else I would close the new nyegens and yet they refused and so I did just that!”

I was even more incensed. To think that I was here trying to improve sanitary conditions in this village and a Japanese NGO just built these brand new improved nyegens and my jatigi whom I respect and admire would lock them during the school day took me aback. When I get as angry as this my speech sometimes becomes a bit hyperbolic and over the course of this shouting match I said some things that maybe in retrospect were really unnecessary, but in the end I think that I got the point across well enough that the situation we then had in which elementary schoolchildren were relieving themselves in a field was absolutely unacceptable.

“The children have the responsibility to clean up after themselves! The student government knows that they have to wash with soap and water pots and brooms I keep in my office!”

I yelled and cursed “Goddammit Karitie they are just children and each and every one of them cannot be expected to clean up properly every time especially if the tools are kept in your office and that the collective punishment of the entire student body was just as disproportional and uncalled for as Israel’s cutting off of electricity to the Gaza Strip leading a million Palestinians to fester with neither plumbing nor water treatment plants and… wait a second… did you say student government?

When I heard the magic words “student government” I harkened back to the glory days at John Jay High School where I played second saxophone behind Ted Lechterman organizing the student body to agitate for our rights to freedom of expression and tried to change the Indian mascot and rallied demonstrations against the war in Iraq, I remembered the war cries of the Amherst College Democrats and our voter registration drives and the marches on Washington and the campaign to divest the endowment from Sudan. If there was a student government in the Sanadougou Première Cycle, then we needed to have a little talk.

I demanded that I meet with them at once. So Karitie brought me down to the fifth grade classrooms and called for Kadi – age 14, Oumar – age 12, Salif – age 12, Brahma – age 11, and Minata – age 10 and took them out of class. We led the elected representatives of the elementary school government to an empty adult education room for an impromptu meeting. For dramatic effect I took off my aviator sunglasses and looked each one of them long and hard in the eye. And I paced back and forth across the blackboard as I performed the part of General George S. Patton in the call-and-response style of West African oratory.

“We have a big problem on our hands. Today your classmates are all peeing in the field. Do you think that that’s alright?”


“Why not?”

“It is dirty!”

“You’re right. Peeing outside is very dirty. Beasts and babies pee outside. Are you beasts?"


“Are you babies?”


Where do adults pee?”

“In the nyegens!”

“Today the nyegens are locked and your classmates are peeing in the fields. Why is that?”

A long silence followed.

Karitie reminded the student government of their explicit responsibility to clean the latrines at least once a week. And the future leaders of the Sanadougou elementary school student body looked down at their feet in shame. They knew that they were given an important responsibility and that they knew exactly what their job was and they blew it.

I then stepped in and gave what I think was a rousing little speech on the responsibility of a student to his classmates, the duty of a citizen in a democratic society and especially an elected representative of public office. I don’t think that Plato and Locke translated very well in my pidgin Bambara – I described the “Democratic Man” as a kumbatigiba – “Big Power Owner” – and the Social Contract as cenijamanabarasongo “Man and Nation Work Agreement”. In all probability I was sputtering nonsense to these ten-year-olds, but they certainly seemed to understand what I was talking about when I told them that they had to either led, follow or get out of the way so that the kids in this school could exercise their rights as members of a civilized society to not have to conduct their bodily functions out in the open.

Many teachers in this country use corporal punishment in order to instill submission, but Karitie has taught me that the mere fear of public beating is usually enough to compel children to do just about anything that you want. I did not even have to mention the possible consequences of insubordination, but Malian children have been conditioned to following their elders’ commands or risk a mighty walloping with a switch. So when I told them to clean the toilets, the Sanadougou elementary school student government hopped to it with soap and water buckets and brooms and scrubbed those nyegens until they sparkled. And I smiled.

Karitie tells me “Just you watch, the new nyegens will stay open and the children will continue to pee in the fields regardless.”

Indeed they might. Though that evening I was in my mud mansion rifling through my medical kit and realized that the Peace Corps issued me a plastic whistle – presumably for when a Volunteer is walking through city streets at night and receives unwanted advances from thieves or perverts or other scoundrels and wants to bring public attention and humiliation upon the offending individual and get them to stop doing what they know is wrong. This rainy season when I can’t do any construction work and have a lot of time on my hands, I might just set up my lifeguard chair next to the elementary school nyegens.

(… dum da DUUUUUUMMMM!!! To Be Continued!!!)

1 comment:

Stephanie Koczela said...

Haha! I love this blog/post. I am good friend of Matt and Lily's and they told me about your blog. I am thrilled to add it to my list of things to read while waiting for thing in Uganda...

:) Steph