I am heading out to the far North-West of Ghana, West Africa, to a district called Nandom. As we drive for hours on a stretch, the landscape undergoes a complete transformation as the lush green south with its hustle and bustle recedes and high grass takes over. The stifling heat indicates that we are approaching the Sahara. We pass by small villages with men sitting in the shade of thick mango trees.
I have come to find out how one of the poorest regions in Ghana managed to almost eradicate open defecation in a mere five years. In 2012, three out of every four persons still defecated in the open. Nowadays everyone has at least a latrine.
A sanitation expert takes me to visit two villages, for me to find out for myself. He explains that using a latrine is extremely important because filth is the number one cause of disease and exposure to shit is a big contributor.
The car wobbles over a dusty road as the expert tells me a common catchphrase, “Dirt is going from FAECES to FLY to FOOD to YOU.” And my mind wanders off to the first time I visited Ghana when on one occasion the call of nature had driven me to a wooden bench with a bucket below. As I glanced down absent mindedly, I saw with horror how its dark contents was dancing as if alive. “How?” I asked my host and was explained that flies lay their eggs down there, from faeces to fly indeed.
The jeep has been travelling over dirt tracks for almost an hour when we halt in a tiny village. Clay huts, straw stubbles sticking out of the hard soil, some baobabs, piles of firewood and an occasional donkey. Here and there I see small cubicles in the same color as the surrounding landscape. Latrines! After paying respect to the village chief (a round of handshakes, a few words, another round of handshakes) we venture out to greet the villagers. As they show me their latrines, I notice with surprise that I smell absolutely nothing. The piping system leads all odor out.
A little group has gathered. They are telling me how it used to be when they were still going out into the fields. “Wasn’t it nicer, out in the bushes with lovely views all around?” I ask, to provoke them out of their obligatory praises.
“Oh, no!” an elderly man says decidedly. “It was terrible, causing arguments and shame. When I was a child, nobody would disturb me except for the snakes that could bite you. But ever since the bushes have been retreating. Even the high grass has been chopped. Look at these empty fields! Over the last years I would sneak out at night, taking my bike to some far off bushes.”
“Well, sometimes I just didn’t feel quite up to it, so I went to the vegetable gardens. Not my own of course. So in the morning a neighbour would run around, ranting, ‘I don’t want to eat someone’s shit!’ This set off cycles of revenge.” He shakes his head wearily, no, this is much better.”
A woman steps in. “We once had a white man come over here for a funeral, all the way from Accra. The journey was long, so he slept with us that night. In the morning he asked for the toilet. What could we say? We told him to go to the kraal where we keep our cattle, but all the children of the village followed him to view the spectacle. It was all so shameful! Now we feel dignified, because we can receive our guests properly. They can go to the latrine and have their privacy.”
Another man adds, “And there’s the pigs! We didn’t know why they were dying. When people had visited other villages, eating bad meat and defecate here afterwards, our pigs would come and eat it. It was only after the latrines that we started noticing these pigs no longer died.”
“I see. But you only found out after using the latrines. What convinced you to change in the first place?”
The chief who had quietly stood by, leaning on his stick, now says, “The experts convinced me. They walked around the village, collected some shit, put it in a calabash, added pito (a local drink) and asked people who on earth would drink this mixture. I remember one man who said ‘yes’ and stepped forward. All of us started protesting in disgust and someone even smacked the calabash from his hands to prevent him. In the end his stubbornness worked even better to convince us. So, we started building our own latrines. As for the villagers who didn’t, I told them to come over for a serious conversation. You know, one dirty handshake can contaminate my whole village.” Although the chief has no formal authority, he is not to be ignored. Involving the right stakeholders, this is what it means.
Back in the car I tell the expert how these people have made me realize that a latrine offers you a place of dignity, even if you have gone out to the field all your life.