Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I Say I've Got a Real Solution...

I don’t think that you have any obligation to give to charity. I don’t think that people in Mali have any right to expect your generosity. I don’t believe in Socialism, I don’t believe in hand-outs, I don’t believe that just throwing money at the endemic disease and poverty in this country is going to make anything better. The vast majority of the time, I think that the best thing for Americans to do is to let the people of Africa solve their own problems themselves.

But every once in a while, someone like Etienne Dembele rides his motorcycle up to my gate. He wanted to know if I could help him find a certain “Madu Sogoba” – Dembele had heard that he builds toilets.

“Vous êtes arrivés à la vraie maison”, dit Monsieur Sogoba.

M. Etienne Dembele explained the situation. He hails from the village of Tounto – a 12 km ride from my own Sanadougou. Tounto is a settlement of some 4,000 people who are mostly simple millet farmers. They have a market, a small clinic, a primary school. Until recently they didn’t even have a secondary school – if the children of Tounto wanted to continue their studies to the 7th, 8th or 9th grade they had to wake before dawn at the call to prayer and walk the 12 km to le Diaramana Secondaire Cycle and back every schoolday. Dembele organized the parents of Tounto to petition le Bureau de la Mairie de la Commune, le Sous-Prefet de la Cercle, even their representatives in the national parliament and every NGO they could find to try to build them a secondary school. They all said no. So Dembele spent 4 years collecting funds from the people of Tounto itself and in the last year commissioned some local masons to build the school themselves.

If you’re not really familiar with the customary patterns of development in countries like Mali, the story of Etienne Dembele and le Tounto Secondaire Cycle is about as remarkable as they come.

However, there was one little problem; Monsieur Dembele was able to raise all the funds for a schoolhouse – but he came up short to build anything else. There is no well or pump in the schoolyard, so before class each day kids have to fetch drinking water from the clinic 1,000 meters away. This is a hassle, but it’s doable.

But more importantly, Dembele wasn’t able to raise enough funds to build latrines. So when the 7th, 8th and 9th-graders have to “go to the bathroom”, they have no choice but to just squat in the field next to the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was built in a pretty open plain by the main road going through town, there aren’t even trees or bushes to hid behind, so these kids are more or less urinating and defecating in plain sight of each other and anyone else who happens to pass by on their motorcycle.

Since there’s no nearby water source, there aren’t even the customary plastic teapots that Malians typically use to wash their hands after they cleaned their butts. Maybe the kids can find some grass or leaves and wipe their hands off. But no matter how hard you wipe your hands with a couple of twigs they really can’t get all the poop or pee or diarrhea completely off their fingers, there will always be some residual germs. And then when they come back to the classroom they’re going to share their scarce textbooks and pencils with all the other students. And of course they’re going to share whatever germs they might have.

Etienne Dembele estimates that 75 percent of all of the students at this school come down with diarrhea over the course of the year, at least 65 percent come down with full-blown dysentery because they have to learn with classmates who cannot go to the bathroom in a sanitary fashion.

The Director of the Secondaire Cycle, Monsieur Fousseyni Sogoba is a generally cheerful young professional in his early 30s. But when he speaks of the lack of sanitary facilities at his school his face contorts into a raging scowl, “My students are children as young as 12, but in the highest grade they are as old as 16, 17 years. The female students are of marrying age, and in our Muslim society it is dishonorable for a woman to be seen undressed by a man who is not her husband. For them to urinate and defecate in the open is the greatest shame. The girls who have diarrhea are condemned.”

The epidemiological hazards of open defecation effect all students equally, but the shame factor hits schoolgirls the most. When girls feel disgraced by shitting in the field for the whole town to see, they simply stop going to go to school – this is especially true when puberty hits and they start menstruating. Though women slightly outnumber men in this society, girls make up less than 40 percent of the student body at Tounto Secondaire Cycle. They make up less than a third of all Secondaire Cycle graduates.

I agree with the Peace Corps philosophy of development which emphasizes those projects which consist of pure education, which require no financial expenditures. But in certain extreme situations, no progress can come about without some significant capital investment – this is one of them.

I told Monsieur Dembele that if he was really serious about building latrines, he had to find out the prices for all the materials we would need and to write up a budget. Two weeks later, he showed up at my gate once again - with a comprehensive budget, typewritten in French. Even after checking all the prices out myself there wasn't all that much to edit. I had never before witnessed this kind of gumption and initiative and professionalism in this country, and to tell you the truth I was downright dumbfounded.

So for the first time in more than a year in Mali, I have agreed to help a local activist fund his project.

Dembele and I have submitted a proposal to Peace Corps Washington to build two first-class latrines - one for boys and one for girls – and three hand-washing stations at the Secondaire Cycle. First the people of Tounto are going to pay a team of well-diggers to excavate the latrine pits. Then after the harvest the dugutigi is going to charge the men of the village out to the fields to gather 100 donkey cartloads of sand, 60 carts of gravel and 12 carts of porous sedimentary rocks. Once these are in place, we are going to Koutiala to buy all of the cement, rebar, plastic tubes, roofing, doors, etc. Tounto is going to pay a team of masons to build the latrines, and I am going to build the hand-washing stations.

Altogether, Tountokaw are paying for 29 percent of the overall cost in labor, transport and raw materials – the labor isn’t just being donated, they’re collecting 170,000 francs (~ $400) to pay the well-diggers and masons, and another 20,000 francs (~$48) to pay for the truck to carry it all from Koutiala to Tounto. The community’s contribution in cash is roughly equal to Mali’s per capita GDP.

And once construction is complete the village of Tounto is going to be responsible for cleaning and maintaining these latrines and hand-washing stations. Most likely the schoolchildren will be doing most of the cleaning themselves. UNICEF provides the school district with some soap, but it is nowhere near enough for these kids' hygienic needs and so parents will be responsible for paying for additional soap as part of the annual school fees. And of course, the teachers will be responsible for teaching and enforcing proper hygiene practices indefinitely.

Despite the drought and the fact that this is going to be a really bad year for all of Mali’s cash crops, the village of Tounto is ready to invest a significant amount of their scarce resources into improving the sanitation at their children’s school. I cannot emphasize enough that in a community as poor as Tounto, this effort is absolutely extraordinary. But they could use some help to pay for the cement, rebar, tin and plastic without which nothing that they contribute can be of any use.

And so, if you would like to donate to a cause which will prevent diarrhea and dysentery and help girls to have an equal opportunity in education, click here.

Update: Apparently so many people donated to fund this project that all of you donors cleaned up shop within 100 hours of it being posted on the Peace Corps website, before I could even bike into the city to post this on my blog. To all of those who contributed, from here in Mali I grant you a big "In'i che kosibe kosibe!!!!!" Thank you very very much!!!!!!

And to those who wanted to donate but didn't make it quickly enough, do not fear - all signs point that after the latrines are built in Tounto, there are plenty of other schools within biking distance of Sanadougou lacking in proper sanitary facilities. Stay tuned!!!!!



Lili Snyder said...

It's quite an evolution.

Aaron said...


I do hope you get this lil comment. In the world of PC, such things are, I will venture, important. Or at least looked upon well.

I am aaron. I am a PCV neighbor, here in Burkina. Through some change of friends of friends of friends of families of friends, I was given your story about the assassination of James Brown.

As a fellow cat owner, I just want to express my deep sadness at this event, and offer what little condolences I can. I hope that your new kitten is in some way able to somewhat make up for the gaping hole of empty that has probably replaced the furry existence of James Brown.

James sounds like an excellent cat; you speak of him well. I confess my cat and I have had some trying times (small houses and complaining kitties do not a utopia make) but we are trying to work through our differences. It sometimes involved a lot of throwing the kitty - however, she just had 3 kittens, so I don't throw her anymore.

Any event, I wanted to raise a glass of bissap to the name of James Brown, and leaving some words of co-misery on your blog is the best I can manage at this moment.
One other mention - you are an excellent writer. Very much enjoyed your story for its craft.

Be well.


Randy said...

Hello Sir:

I'm currently writing a paper on the effectiveness of conventional humanitarianism, and would like to cite your personal observations as a Peace Corps volunteer regarding the success of previous humanitarian NGO projects in Mali, if this is alright with you.

Out of curiosity, why not compost the human waste? I have no experience with this practice, but from what I've read it seems to be VASTLY more efficient than what you're advocating.

Also, you could probably get away with using woven straw/plant material, cloth/tents, or even earthen berms to create privacy screens.

~ Randy Morantes







Zachary Asher Mason! said...

Mr. Morantes,

the composting of human waste does indeed make a lot of sense, and I practice it myself (namely, urine fertilizer) in my own garden.

However, in terms of implementing and financing a latrine project, the simpler the better. The more you build, the more expensive the project is, the more can/will break, the more that can/will go wrong and eventually turn this development project into a pile of unusable rubble.

Composting latrines need to be built upon raised platforms, significantly increasing the amount of labor, sand, gravel and especially cement (the most expensive input) in latrine construction.

If I were building this latrine on my own for my own personal use, sure. But when I eventually pack my bags and go back to America, these villagers are going to need to be able to conduct maintenance and repairs themselves. I can't ask them to shell out more cash which they don't have to conduct my own experiments in organic living.

Yes, one could get away with woven straw mats, earthen berms etc. as privacy screens - for a few months maybe. But none of those materials will last more than a year. By 2010, every child could be seen defecating by their schoolmates and the project would wind up a total failure.

Randy said...

Hello again:

My apologies, I should've been more explicit in explaining my suggestion, which was to recycle the human excrement using composting BINS, versus composting LATRINES. This suggestion is based on the following information from Joseph Jenkins' "The Humanure Handbook":

"The most basic way to compost humanure is simply to collect it in a toilet receptacle and add it to a compost pile. THE TOILET ACTS ONLY AS THE COLLECTION DEVICE [emphasis mine], while the composting takes place at a separate location. Such a toilet requires little, if any expense and can be constructed and operated by people of simple means in a wide range of cultures around the world." (Pg. 103)

"Complete pathogen destruction is guaranteed by arriving at a temperature of 62°C (143.6°F) for one hour, 50°C (122°F) for one day, 46°C (114.8°F) for one week, or 43°C (109.4°F) for one month. It appears that no excreted pathogen can survive a temperature of 65°C (149°F) for more than a few minutes. A compost pile containing entrapped oxygen may rapidly rise to a temperature of 55°C (131°F) or above, or will maintain a temperature hot enough for a long enough period of time to thoroughly destroy human pathogens that may be in the humanure (see Figure 7.6). Furthermore, pathogen destruction is aided by microbial diversity, as discussed in Chapter 3. Table 7.14 indicates survival times of pathogens in a) soil, b) anaerobic decomposition conditions, c) composting toilets, and d) thermophilic compost piles." (Pg. 144-145)

"What about leachate, or noxious liquids draining from the pile into the environment? First, compost REQUIRES a lot of moisture; evaporated moisture is one of the main reasons why compost shrinks so much. Compost piles are not inclined to DRAIN moisture unless subjected to an excessive amount of rain. Most rainwater is absorbed by the compost, but in heavy rainfall areas a roof or cover can be placed over the compost pile at appropriate times in order to prevent leaching. This roof can be as simple as a piece of plastic or a tarp. Second, a thick biological sponge should be layered under the compost before the pile is built. This acts as a leachate barrier.
If these two factors aren't effective enough, it would be a simple matter to place a layer of plastic underneath the compost pile, under the biological sponge, before the pile is built. Fold the plastic so that it collects any leachate and drains into a sunken five gallon bucket. If leachate collects in the bucket, pour it back over the compost pile. The interface between the compost pile and the soil acts as a corridor for soil organisms to enter the compost pile, however, and plastic will prevent that natural migration. Nevertheless, the plastic CAN provide simple and effective leachate prevention, if needed." (Pg. 178)

The construction of the compost bin itself looks pretty straightforward, as does the maintenance/managing aspect:




(more to follow)

Randy said...

I agree, simple IS better. Virtually all the materials necessary for composting can be produced locally, and for little cost. There is no need to build the composting bins on raised platforms, a concave patch of bare earth should be sufficient. It's possible the waterproof receptacles and tarps could be an issue, but they should be somewhat easier to acquire than cement and rebar, and the receptacles should last for several years at least.

If you have the kids defecate/urinate in waterproof containers (enforced by the teachers), periodically emptying the contents onto properly maintained compost piles, the cost to the town should be relatively low compared to the cement latrine project, and would even yield fertile, pathogen-free soil in the process.

I would think that if the people of Tounto were willing to go to such lengths to construct a school for the benefit of their children, they would have no problem occasionally erecting/maintaining a non-cement privacy screen (a couple bedsheets if nothing else), but I will defer to your experience on this.

BTW, good luck with your project.

~ Randy Morantes