Sanya’s vision: formalising more manual emptier groups

‘We considered them – manual emptiers – our enemies of sorts and the relationship we had with them was of a police-fugitive type, recounted Sanya Anthony Mwara, the Municipal Health Officer at Shinyanga Municipal Council. No longer outcasts, more and more emptiers have become sanitation heroes and partners for change. In this blog, Sanya shares what made this possible.

Before Shinyanga Tanzania’s first manual emptiers group – Watu Kazi – was formalised, Sanya and his colleagues at the city council considered the group’s emptying work to be horrible, illegal, and a threat to the environment.

Discovering small handwritten manual emptier advertising leaflets around town did little to help the emptiers’ case in gaining trust and confidence. Health officers and municipal officials occasionally received complaints from the community – mostly the neighbours of manual emptying customers – about the strong and off-putting smell emitted by sludge scooped out from pits and moved into buckets. The officials would respond by visiting the area(s), only to find the manual emptiers running away to escape from being caught

‘It was difficult to see them or find them, especially since they worked at night. We would fine the house/toilet owner from 50,000 to 200,000 Tanzanian shillings, depending on our assessment of the situation,’ added Sanya.

The rocky road to formalisation

As part of the WASH SDG Programme in 2019, SNV engaged the municipal office to talk about safely managed sanitation. Formalisation of the manual emptier group’s profession was considered integral in achieving this.

At first, the talk did not do much for Sanya. He couldn’t see it happening. ‘It was not possible,’ he said. ‘What are we even going to talk about with people (the manual emptiers) who pollute the environment?’ he added.

Nevertheless, the municipal council decided to test the proposed formalisation.

Identifying the district’s manual emptiers was the first step that had to be done. This did not come easy. It involved collaborating with other governmental departments, legal officers, and community development actors. Angel Mwaipopo, a Community Development Officer from the municipal council, was vital in gaining the trust of manual emptiers and obtaining their consent to officially register as a member of the emptiers group. Sanya, on the other hand, raised awareness among his health officers and councillor peers to consider the formalisation of the emptier group a municipal priority.

‘It wasn’t easy trying to explain why we were trying to create a group and bring together people who put the lives of the community at risk as they scoop sludge and unblock toilets unsafely,’ he explained.

In 2021, the Watu Kazi emptiers group was formalised, thanks to the persistence of Sanya and Angel.

Introducing Tanzania's first organised manual emptiers, the Watu Kazi Group

Achievements and what comes next

Watu Kazi’s formalisation has brought nothing but pride to the municipal council. Immediately after the group’s formalisation, they received semi-mechanised tools of the trade and participated in SNV-led trainings on the safe provision of emptying services and the importance of proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) use. According to Sanya: ‘We just had the national torch exhibition this year where we presented our proud achievements on sanitation. The Watu Kazi group along with their machine, [were one of these].’

In addition, the group received additional support from the Initiative for Sanitation Workers (ISW: a global advocacy partnership between the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation, WaterAid, the World Bank, and SNV). ‘Through the ISW, Watu Kazi gained the opportunity to visit other formalised manual emptiers. Fellow emptiers learned from them and for the first time, they were able to attend national conferences that boosted their entrepreneurial skills and promoted their business.’

Sanya aspires to formalise more manual emptier groups who continue to operate under the radar in harsh and unsafe conditions. But trust-building needs time. He shared, ‘I tried calling a number I saw in one of those posters the other day and booked for a job to get a chance to speak to them, but they never called me back. Somehow, they must have found out who I am.’

Sanya understands that the road ahead will be tough. It will take a lot of convincing and sensitisation for manual emptiers to see the positive in formalisation and open their minds to relatively newer but safer ways of working.

Sanya attends IRC's All Systems Connect 2023 Conference at The Hague, the Netherlands [2-4 May 2023]

The fight continues but Sanya believes that if Shinyanga keeps in this direction and with the right support, they will succeed; not only in Shinyanga but in many other Tanzania cities and municipalities.

Today, the Shinyanga case study has been instrumental in the development of the National OHS Guidelines for Sanitation Workers in Tanzania, which will be launched later this year. On the back of this, the Watu Kazi group is spearheading efforts to establish the first sanitation workers platform in Tanzania, advocating for workers’ increased recognition and more decent working conditions.

This blog was prepared by Leyla Khalifa, Junior Water Advisor at SNV in Tanzania.

Watch to learn

A short video explainer on the holistic approach that stakeholders from Shinyanga Tanzania applied to make safely managed sanitation possible and widely available to its residents.