In previous episodes of this adventure serial, our hero was inspired by his kitty cat digging cat holes in his litter box to dig a big deep hole in back of his nyegen. The American reader who has lived all of his or her life micturating and stircumating into a porcelain toilet flowing into a septic tank or a municipal sewer system might not understand the import of this action, but as a brief primer let me introduce you to the mechanics of a pit latrine.
First, I must emphasize the not-so-obvious reality that in some parts of the world a pit latrine is considered newfangled technology. In the year 2009 there remain many societies in which few people have bothered to build any sort of infrastructure to dispose of human waste in a sanitary matter. What that means is that everyone in a small village poops in the woods, in the fields, or on certain designated rocks or directly into the water. In more densely populated towns and cities, that means that people just pull down their pants and shit in the street where other people are selling and selling food. Oftentimes if a society lacking in sanitation infrastructure is located near a pond, a lake, a stream or a river, that means that everyone in this rural society disposes of their solid and liquid waste in the very same body of water which also serves as either their own or another human community's sole supply of drinking water - putting that society at grave risk of cholera outbreaks. This is the absolute nadir of public sanitation.
There are other cultures which have collectively decided that defecation out in the open, in and near water and food supplies is a hazard to public health if not humiliating to everyone in that society. And so they have developed their sanitation practices somewhat and built designated areas which are reserved exclusively for the depositing of feces and urine. In the Bambara and Minianka cultures of Mali families often build their own structure known as a bokeyuro – euphemistically, a “traditional nyegen”, but literally, a “pooping place”. It is what it sounds like; an area demarcated by a mud brick wall inside which people poop. The chief advantages of a bokeyuro over open defecation are that 1) fecal matter is controlled to some degree – people are no longer shitting all over the place, but rather in one place; 2) it spares its users the indignity of shitting in the street for all the world to see. The primary disadvantage of having everyone in a family of 35 shitting in one place is that it very quickly becomes full of shit – and a concentrated smorgasbord for filth flies, cockroaches, pigs and every disease vector which enjoys eating human feces.
The bokeyuro and its close relative, the sugunyekeyuro – “peeing place” – are not confined to undeveloped rural villages; I have been to a number of sketchy bars and restaurants in densely-populated urban areas where – upon asking for the nyegen – I have been shown to a seemingly empty room. Seeing no toilet seat, no urinal, no chamber pot or even a hole in the ground, I was at first confused as to what I was supposed to do. But after noticing a foul-smelling puddle on the floor it became quite apparent that the standard protocol in this establishment was to just do as one likes so long as it’s confined to this one closed container – and to leave the mess for someone else to clean up. The only aspect of a “traditional nyegen” which could be fairly called a virtue is that at least no one can see the user as they suffer the indignity of using it.
After many generations of building and managing “traditional nyegens”, proprietors of bokeyuros became disillusioned with the fact that they had to sweep up floors full of shit and piss every day. And so they discovered that if you dig a hole in that designated shitting place and bury a clay pot up to its brim, the pot fills up more slowly and one does not have to sweep up shit so often, and moreover the chamber pot can be closed with a lid. Eventually this semi-buried chamber pot evolved into what is known as a “pit latrine”, which is exactly what it sounds like – a hole in the ground on top of which people squat and poop, though a hole which leads to an underground pit which is so voluminous that it can store many months if not multiple years’ worth of fecal matter. Due to the fact that the shit is safely stored underground, a pit latrine is the simplest technology to contain and concentrate human solid waste in order to reduce fecal-oral disease transmission. In Mali the pit latrine is called a nyegen, and especially in rural villages a nyegen is more often than not constructed out of logs, dried mud and mud bricks.
Though a major step up from open defecation, a "traditional nyegen" has many faults to its design. The first and most significant is that the vast majority of nyegens are built out of mud - which is a perfectly adequate construction material so long as you don’t mind seeing your nyegen disintegrate under the heavy rains and having to rebuild it all over again every year. When I was living in Sinsina last rainy season I woke up during a torrential downpour one night and came out with my raincoat and headlamp prepared for a nocturnal stircumation - when I realized that the nyegen which I had struggled so hard learning to use over the past month had collapsed into the pit. It wasn’t a very fun night.
Most nyegens are not closed properly - if at all. Just as all of that fecal matter is concentrated in one place, so is the stench – and all of the insects and vermin which are attracted by it. And if flies are feasting upon human waste, they can transmit those pathogens equally well if they are from waste on top of a soccer field, the central market square or from inside an unclosed nyegen.
Pit latrines without proper coverings are also hazardous to small house pets. One Peace Corps Volunteer who failed to properly cover her nyegen suffered the fate of curious kitten peering into the hole and falling into the pit. She tried hoisting down a bucket, but the kitten could not be made to understand that it was supposed to climb in. Every time that the Volunteer crouched down over the hole she would hear her kitten mewing – and she knew that she was peeing all over it – until the mews became weaker and weaker and the poor critter eventually died of starvation.
Moreover, the greatest weakness of a latrine is that the latrine pit is ultimately going to fill up without some sort of outlet. This does not necessarily have to happen, for if a given latrine is seldom used and it also serves as a food source for a considerable population of worms, flies, cockroaches and dung beetles, the mass of the pit’s contents could technically decompose faster than it accumulates. But more often than not it is the other way around. Even a latrine pit is used only for the disposal of solid waste, eventually there is going to be a big stinking mass of human feces and someone has to perform the unenviable task of jumping into that latrine pit and shoveling out its contents. This job is so objectionable and yet so necessary in a society with pit latrines that Indian civilization created an entire caste of persons – the Dalits – who are born to the foul and dangerous occupation of shoveling other people’s shit.
Latrine pits fill up particularly fast if they are misused for the disposal of wastewaters which stifle aerobic decomposition and turn the nyegen into a stinking cesspool which serves as a breeding ground for pathogens, is never going to evaporate, and is difficult to remove. It’s most likely no big deal if a little bit of pee trickles into the poop pit because while squatting you had to #1 and #2 at the same time; it only becomes a problem if this happens to a great extent on a regular basis. What’s really bad is if a family dumps their average weekly 1,600 liters of greywater produced from washing persons, dishes and clothing into the latrine pit – in which case it is going to fill up in no time at all.
One means of significantly reducing the quantity of mass inside a latrine pit and requiring less-frequent shoveling sessions is to separate the solid waste from the liquid waste. Malian cultures which developed mud nyegens found this out pretty quickly, which is why just about every nyegen in this country is made with a second hole on the bottom of one of the mud brick walls which allows wastewater to flow out. These outflow holes work just fine in terms of reducing unpleasant latrine-emptying labor. However, simple outflow holes kind of defeat the entire purpose of containing disease-spreading pathogens, for even if the squatting hole is aptly closed there is now raw, untreated sewage lying in the open where it is accessible to every species of disease vector known to mankind.
Some families - especially those who live in the outskirts of town next to their fields and gardens -simply place their nyegen in a remote corner of their concession so that their wastewater can flow out to a lightly-trafficked part of their living space. My host family’s nyegen water empties out in back of their house where no one has to see or smell it. The agglomerate of mud and sewage which has been generated in back of the nyegen after years of use also serves as their pigs’ favorite location for recreation, so every time the mucky sow and her piglets trot by we get a whiff of general nastiness (this is also serves as a prime reason to never eat pork in this country).
Though when I walk into the center of town where the concessions are closer together and there is no field or garden into which the wastewater can flow out, every family’s greywater and urine flows directly into the street where everybody walks, their children play and their animals roam. To say that the streets of Sanadougou are "foul" or “disgusting” would be a gross understatement.
On a typical day when I have to walk to the center of town and buy some sugar at the butigi, this is what the streets look like:
If you’ve never before lived in Mali or a similar underdeveloped country, you might be wondering: “What the Hell are those big crater-looking things on either side of the road?” Those, my friends, are puddles of human liquid waste.
Sometimes people will dig a little hole to “contain” their wastewater so that instead of spilling all over the street it sits in a relatively smaller, fetid and actually more hazardous cesspool.
Oftentimes people use their wastewater ditches for garbage disposal too.
Some of these nasty puddles are really, really big. Karitie Sanogo stands in the background for perspective.
Even my Minianka neighbors who believe that diseases come from wizards and evil spirits understand that these wastewater puddles are really, really bad because they serve as breeding grounds for filth flies and mosquitoes. They believe that the wizards turn into flies and buzz over to place their curses in other people’s food. The Miniankas are like ¾ of the way there…
The worst part about standing wastewater is that it threatens the health of everyone in the community – not just those who produced this uncontained pee and greywater. Let’s say that the Sogoba family is currently sharing a really bad case of amoebic dysentery; most of their diarrhea fell down into the nyegen pit, but little Bakary missed the hole and splattered all over the floor and so his mother washed the floor down with water and it flowed out the drainage hole into the street. A female filth fly is hungry and thirsty, so she sticks her proboscis into the Traorés’ effluent of human waste – while she’s at it, she will stick her front two legs into the water and pick up whatever unicellular amoeba have been previously evacuated by the Traoré family.
Let’s say the Dembele family does everything right; they get their drinking water from the hand pump in the village square, they filter their water and treat it with chlorine bleach, they wash their hands with soap after going to the bathroom and before eating. As the family gathers around the communal food bowl for dinner, the female fly which was just drinking from the Traorés’ cesspool swoops down and lands in the Dembeles’ tigadegana. Now the Dembele’s peanut butter sauce is spiced with a dash of Bakary Traoré’s diarrhea with a few young amoebas to boot. Now the Traorés and the Dembeles all have amoebic dysentery! This is why improving sanitation on the household level alone does not suffice to improve a family’s health – sanitation campaigns must be conducted on the community scale.
So this is where I, Zachary Mason a.k.a. Madu Sogoba, Peace Corps Volunteer, come into the picture. Before anything else, after being roused into action by the hardest-working man in the sanitation business, my kitty cat of soul James Brown, I took the initiative of spending a week in back of my nyegen digging a big fat hole. As this was the first time that anyone in Sanadougou had ever seen a white person doing manual labor, the week that I dug that hole behind my nyegen was a major spectacle.
However, what sets the hole in back of my nyegen apart from the couple-inch craters which my neighbors have made to create stinking cesspools of slime is that there’s a more planning and a little bit of industrial-age materials involved in my creation.
What I have made here is the pinnacle of water sanitation technology appropriate for a rural Malian village: a soak pit - or in the local vernacular, a wuluwuludinge. Instead of any old hole, it’s a hole filled with rocks with a plastic tube leading from the outflow hole in the nyegen. It’s not quite finished - but that’s the point; over time I’m going to fill it completely with more rocks, cover it with sturdy black plastic, line the plastic tube with cement, and cover the entire thing up with mud so that looks no less wholesome than the rest of my garden. But in the meantime it serves as an excellent teaching tool for all of the people who walk by and ask me “what the Hell is that?” I invite all of the curious onlookers into my concession to inspect my new wuluwuludinge, show them what its purpose is and how it works, and offer to help them build one behind their own nyegen(s).
A soak pit really isn’t all that complicated. The purpose of this contraption is to thoroughly contain human wastewater so that it flows directly underground with absolute minimal interaction between other humans, livestock, and disease-transmitting insects. If one were to put a plastic pipe directly between the nyegen and the ground without a storage cavity, the water would not be able to seep quickly enough into the soil. Thus a soak pit serves as rudimentary septic tank; the first thing that it does is provide sufficient volume for the wastewater produced by a given family to sit in a contained location, and as the wastewater sits there, donné donné it will seep into the soil surrounding it. The pit should be filled not with concrete rubble or mud bricks but only with sedimentary rocks which can be permeated with water and still maintain their form. And every couple of years the owner of a soak pit should open it up, let the rocks out in the sun for a day to dry and clean them off so that they remain permeable.
My water sanitation how-to books say that soak pits can also be built in rural villages with indigenous materials; if there is bamboo available it can be hallowed to serve the same function as the plastic pipe, and then instead of plastic sheeting the hole can be covered with straw, corn husks or leaves. If available locally, bamboo and agricultural refuse is available, these materials could be economically-preferable to plastic piping and sheeting because it can be absolutely free of charge; however, organic materials eventually rot and need to be replaced – whereas plastic is relatively durable.
So not only am I teaching people about the merits and joys of soak pits – I’m also in the process of organizing a project to build a preliminary stage of 30 of these babies throughout the village of Sanadougou. The scheme Peace Corps has for project funding is that the local community has to pay at least 30 percent of the total project cost (which can be paid in raw materials, tools and services as well as cash) and USAID funds up to 70 percent. I had a series of meetings with my boss, the dugutigi of Sanadougou and his posse of old men and le Bureau de la Mairie, and we worked out a deal that if individual families can provide for all of the rocks, sand, and either pay for or provide in-kind all of the skilled and unskilled labor that goes into the making of a soak pit, then the American people will chip in for all of the plastic piping and sheeting.
What’s more, we’re going to throw in a brand new, cement-floored nyegen! One can certainly build a soak pit in back of a traditional Malian mud nyegen, but when the rains come all of that mud on the floor is going to rapidly fill up the pit and clog the pipe. There are about a dozen latrines in this village made with at least cement floors, and for those all that we need to do is make sure there’s a cover over the hole and dig a soak pit in the back and its disease-transmitting days are effectively over. But if we’re going to build a soak pit in back of Sanadougou’s more numerous mud nyegens we are going to have to remake the flooring with cement if not rebuild the nyegen from scratch.
And thus my job nowadays entails walking down Sanadougou's filthy streets, stopping to chat with my fellow villagers and talking to them about their nyegens and wastewater, to measure the dimensions of what needs to be dug, and let them know about an offer they can't refuse: you get off your butt and provide the labor, rocks and sand, and then the American people will provide you with $80 worth of cement, rebar and plastic and we're going to build a brand new cement nyegen which they'll never have to rebuild it again. There will be no sewage spewing out into the streets, filth flies and mosquitoes will have less stagnant water to lay their eggs in, and maybe just maybe pathogens will be reduced to such an extent that you will be able to discern a measurable improvement in their families' health. I think that's a pretty good deal.
After 8 weeks of canvassing and meeting with dozens upon dozens of families, however, results have been quite underwhelming. One guy down the street has dug 3 holes and filled 2 of them with rocks, another guy on my street has accumulated a pile of rocks in front of his nyegen, and after shaming them into action my host brothers have made a half-assed effort at digging a hole. A lot of people seem to be completely indifferent to the fact that their children are playing in, their livestock are drinking from, and they are inevitably ingesting their own and other people's wastewater.
I was trying to persuade one family which just so happens to supplement their farming income with a "pharmacy"; a mud hovel with bootleg Chinese manufactured medications which are in all likelihood nothing but sugar pills. They also have among the worst, most disgusting cesspools in the entire village (their twin nyegenji puddles are pictured above). Time and time again they would laugh me off, "Oh Tubabuke, don't you see that we have so many better things to do like drinking tea and selling medicine?"
They didn't even give me direct eye contact until I started talking dollars and cents. Walking by one day I mentioned to the pharmacist "I've got a headache and I would really like to buy some medicine - but I'm going to buy my pills from the other pharmacist down the street because his sewage isn't spilling out into the street and so his medicine is probably a lot cleaner". As I continued along my way I could hear the gears churning in his head...
Despite the lack of worldly-physical action, in spirit everyone seems to be behind me. I'm told every day "May Allah help you in your good work!"
"Allah-u-akbar; however, He's not going to clean up our village. But you can give me a hand..."
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