Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter the Poopopticon

The best course I ever took in college was Professor Bumiller’s Regulating Citizenship. The syllabus itself wasn’t every impressive– it was mostly composed of elementary political writings of Locke, de Tocqueville, Thoreau and Martin Luther King which I had read in high school. But what made this course so enlightening was the format and location of our class: once a week ten “outside” students from Amherst College drove down Route 9 to meet with ten “inside” students in the visiting room of the Hampshire County Jail.

The “inside” students were not hardened criminals but guys who happened to have been given a bad deck in life and royally screwed up, but they deserved a second chance. “Camp Hampshire” – as it was affectionately known by those who had made it through the meaner penal regimen at State – provided a community-based rehabilitation program, offering residents drug counseling, psychotherapy, G.E.D. certification, training in carpentry, quilting, and seeing-eye dog training. Through the course of their stay residents were incrementally allowed more and more freedom of movement, culminating in the final stage when they resided in quarters outside the sealed gates of the central compound and could essentially walk in and out as they pleased and vans would drive them off the facility grounds so they could work part-time jobs. The overriding purpose of this entire scheme was to “re-socialize” those whom society had apparently failed the first time around, so that the next time graduates of the Hampshire County could re-enter conventional society with marketable skills, find a decent job and conduct themselves in a lawful manner.

The most tantalizing class was the day when we discussed Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment, namely, his analysis of Jeremy Bentham's ideal reformatory: the Panopticon. According to this scheme lawbreakers should be reside in a ring of transparent cells ringed around a central guard tower so that guards could monitor all prisoners at all times. Every sinner would be conditioned into good behavior by the sight of the ever-present guard tower, for it would always be much too obvious to the prisoner that his every behavior could be monitored. Whether or not there was actually a guard in the tower conducting surveillance at any given moment was irrelevant – the individual prisoner could never know. And so he would have to assume that he was in fact being watched in perpetuity as though by the all-seeing eyes of God. The convicted criminal would thus have no choice but to adopt self-discipline and learn to conduct himself with upright character and morality at all times.

Foucault and Mill were quite relevant to the daily lives of every single “inside” student, for though they enjoyed a liberal degree of freedom at the Hampshire County, they were self-disciplined into good behavior by omnipresent video cameras which were linked to live-feeds into the central guards’ surveillance room. An “inside” student pointed at the silver orb hanging from the ceiling,

“We know what da Panopticon is all about! Here we gotta stand in line cuz we is bein’ surveillanced every single minute of every single goddamn day!

This experiment in academia has proved to actually be quite useful in my real-life experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer trying to promote water sanitation in Mali. Here the biggest public health issue I’m dealing with isn’t a crime as defined by any legal code, but an act so heinous that it is treated with the palatable euphemism “open defecation”; i.e. children shitting all over the public school grounds.

Every single day when I walk to Karitie and Durcas’ house for lunch, I walk past the Première Cycle. The sanitary infrastructure on this schoolyard is actually quite impressive for a rural town in Mali; there is an India/Mali pump so that the students and teachers can drink clean, filtered water at all times, and there are three sets of latrines – one of them brand spanking new. The kids know how to get their water from the pump – sort of – but it is quite apparent that they do not quite grasp what they are supposed to do with these latrines. In one hour I sat with Durcas under her gwa and counted 14 kids who actually ventured inside the nyegens and do their business, 11 children who defecated in back of the nyegens, and 8 of them who just dropped their pants and shamelessly pissed in the middle of the schoolyard.

“Durcas, this just doesn’t make any sense. It actually takes more effort for these kids to walk behind the nyegens than it does for them to walk inside the nyegens. Why on Earth do they insist on expending more energy to shit and piss outside?”

“Je ne sais pas! You have done everything that you can possibly do to tame these nasty children. You have organized the student government to properly clean the inside of the nyegens on a weekly basis…”

“ – But the problem here is what kids are doing outside the nyegens that’s so unsanitary.”

“You have even trained your puppy Snoop to tackle nasty children he sees pooping…”

“ – But ever since Snoop maimed Bobacar’s sheepling in the fields I’ve had to keep him chained up all day.”

“Then there is nothing more that you can do.”

“But there is! I’ve been trying to get Karitie to let me teach his students just one class on how to go to the bathroom – but he still won’t let me… Speaking of the Devil, here he comes right now! Karitie!”


“Watching these kids shit so near the water pump day in and day out is simply intolerable. What do I have to do for you to let me teach these kids a lesson in proper defecation?”

“I have already told you that you should beat these nasty, nasty children. Here in Mali when children are misbehaving that is what we do – we rip a switch from the tree and spank their butt until they cry! Unless you teach my students that there is a price that comes with pooping outside, and that that price is a very painful beating, I refuse to let you step foot in my classrooms.”

“I still don’t want to tell these kids that I, personally am going to beat them – some of these 8 and 9-year-olds are my best friends in this entire village! I’m sure there is some way that we can compromise...”

So that afternoon I put on my General Patton face and went from class to class to lead a stern conversation on personal hygiene and sanitation. I greeted all the students, greeted their teachers and after a little small talk abruptly broke the ice; “I have to poop” and squatted down in front of the blackboard as though I were going to do it right there in front of the class. “Do you think that this is a good place for pooping?”

“NO!!!” (Asking questions always catches the kids off guard, they are so used to being lectured at)

“OK then… How about I poop here behind the teacher’s desk? No one can see me!”


“Is it ever OK for me to poop or pee inside the classroom?”


“Why not?”

“It is DIRTY!!!”

“That is correct! Pooping or peeing in public places with lots of people is the dirtiest thing in the world! And that is why I am very mad . Today I watched 19 children poop and pee outside the nyegens. Do you think that pooping and peeing outside in the schoolyard is OK?”


“Do you know what diseases you can get from people pooping and peeing outside?”

Answers included “Malaria!”, “Headache!”, “Coughing!” even “AIDS!”

“Close… but not quite. Who here has heard of dysentery, cholera or schistosomiasis?”

This very unscientific survey made me think that absolutely no one in the subpopulation of Sanadougou most likely to fall ill to these wretched maladies had heard of them previously. That was a very frightening thought. So for each class I drew a diagram of the water pump on the schoolyard all the way down to the water table.

“Here is a schoolgirl named Aminata Sogoba. She is drinking water from the water pump. Do any of you know how other students might make Aminata sick?..

Pooping and peeing outside in the schoolyard, of course!”

So I drew a highly exaggerated diagram of how diseases are transmitted via open defecation and urination – the Bambara language doesn’t take very well to metaphors or similes, so I had to make my diagram as straightforwardly literal as possible.

“…So you see, when Aminata drinks water contaminated with Bakary’s poop she has a good chance of getting sick with giardia or dysentery or even cholera and she might even die because Bakary took a dump too close to the water supply. Who here has had diarrhea in the past month?”

Everyone raises their hand.

“There’s a good chance that you had diarrhea because your classmates have been pooping all over the schoolyard and their poop somehow got into your mouth. Either their poop went directly into the drinking water, or it got on a soccer ball – which someone picked up with their hands – and then they picked up a pencil – and then you shared that pencil – and then you put your finger in your mouth. Every time that children poop out in the schoolyard it gives you a greater chance of getting sick… So does anyone here want to get a really bad case of diarrhea again?”


"Does anyone want to get other people's poop in their mouth?"


“So what do you think we should do with dirty children who poop outside and put nasty disease seeds in the drinking water?”


“You all should know that Karitie says that I should beat children who dirty the schoolyard with their poop. But I will not, I cannot do that. There are 428 of you and only 8 teachers and 1 of me – we adults can’t watch you when we have to work. Though since all of you go to school here, and it is you the students’ responsibility to fill the water jugs with clean drinking water and to clean the nyegens, it is now the job of each and every one of you to make sure that no one poops outside... You’re going to have to learn to discipline yourselves! So what are you going to do the next time you see kids pooping in the schoolyard?”


“Wow… that sounds like pretty awful punishment… and you all have wonderful imaginations. Though violence is horrible, and I do not encourage you to ever hurt anyone - but pooping near the water pump is even worse because it hurts many more people in ways that you cannot see. I would prefer that the next time you see kids pooping outside you teach them why they are spreading diseases and threatening other people's lives... But remember, Monsieur le Directeur thinks that kids who poop next to the water pump he drinks from every day should be beaten..."

"So in conclusion, next time that you have to poop or pee, where must you go?”


“Thank you, my good friends. May Allah grant you a day of peace and happiness.”

After visiting all eight classrooms in the Sanadougou Première Cycle; 1) I finally got the break I had sought for so long to teach these kids about water sanitation and fecal-orally-transmitted diseases; 2) Karitie got the warning he wanted that open defecation in the schoolyard shall result in corporal punishment; 3) Not once did I ever have to say that I would personally conduct any of these beatings. I was able to draw from these students own mouths that not only is shitting and pissing in the schoolyard absolutely intolerable, that it is an epidemiological hazard and a personal offense to the entire student body and faculty, and – the icing on the cake – that the students themselves would personally beat their peers who threatened them with disease and even death by depositing their waste in the vicinity of the drinking water pump. I think that this compromise worked out fairly well.

And of course the best way to judge a utilitarian policy would of course to measure its tangible results. Before my discussions on water sanitation roughly 2 out of every 3 students were shitting and pissing outside on the streets, in the schoolyard, next to the nyegens, anywhere but inside the nyegens. But since I introduced this strict new waste management policy and cooperative disciplinary regime, open defecation has come to a screeching halt. In the two weeks since neither Karitie nor Durcas nor I have yet to see another child drop their pants in the open.

They seem to have internalized the discipline of sanitary defecation out of fear of peer punishment as though they were policed by the all-seeing eyes of Allah.


James Romine said...

This entry is very inspiring. I've really enjoyed reading your entries while waiting for a PC invitation. Keep up the good work!

Adrian said...

excellent diagrams

Katherine said...

ha ha, good job, Zac. :)

Anonymous said...

Zac .. excellent write-up. May the Muslim god, the Christian god, the Jewish god and all gods past, present, and future find favor with you and your work with the children of Mali. In sh'Alla!
JG, Arlington, Texas