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One toilet for Mathare thousands

 The Big Issue Kenya 15 November 2019

It is not the usual reflexive activity of putting one leg ahead of the other as you walk in Area 10 of Mathare slum. Be prepared to hop, skip and jump if you have to get moving. It is indeed one attentively watchful exercise, lest you bump into the mounds of fresh human waste littering every space. (1536 Words) - By Mbugua Muchoki

The Big Issue Kenya_One Toilet for Mathare Thousands

The Mathare slum. Photo: Amunga Esuchi

Mathare Area 10, which is part of the larger Mathare slum, is situated approximately seven kilometers north of Nairobi city,Kenya is made up of four villages - Gumba, Kwamburu, Mabatini, and Nyang'ao. Between these four villages, there is a population of over five thousand people who have only one public toilet to share amongst themselves.  As one wades into the slum, the first sight is that of a shallow effluent stream lazily flowing away, flushing the deposited human waste into the Nairobi river, only a few meters away.

What the residents of this slum call a toilet is a make shift structure, erected atop the river. The walls comprise of two worn out sacks which are held together by two sticks. There is no roof on this structure neither is there a door for some privacy. Inside, a young boy, Kioko delicately balances himself against the sack walls while relieving himself, staring into the open blue sky. Outside, a small cue is impatiently waiting for the young boy to finish his call of nature. They have trekked from far to use this sole facility. At night people defecate in open places and others put their waste in paper bags and litter it all over the slum. This open defecation has been a long term nightmare to health officials in this area.

But it is not only the health officials who are bothered by Mathare's sanitation state. A group of local youths who have grown up in the slum recently came together and organized a campaign aimed at stopping this practice. At the local PAG church, where the group has been meeting to strategize on the campaign, they are joined by a team from the area administration, health officials and development workers to officially launch the campaign. Going by the slogan Nimeacha kunya adharani, je wewe? (I have stopped open defecation, what about you?) The campaign, stop eating your own shit, aims at triggering behavioral change through creating fear, shame and disgust with open defecation.

The group is drawing their attention to the risks involved in the poor sanitation standards and the link between environment and their health. "We collect the waste from the open yards that the community uses at night, or the plastic bags that they use as flying toilets and bring it to their table. We then ask them to eat their food beside the shit;" Joseph Njuguna, a group member explains, saying they always refuse. "That is when we explain to them how the waste ultimately ends up in their own plates, and finally in their stomachs!" This happens when they collect it through their feet; consume contaminated water through broken water pipes, when their fecal waste is blown by wind, or through rodents.

Through Urban Community Led total Sanitation (UCLT), a community based approach to open defecation; the youth group wants to initiate a community led solution to the sanitation and hygiene problem that has been part of the slum for many years. UCLT was first developed by an Indian researcher Kamal Kar and has piloted in other countries like Zambia and Singapore with some results, according to the representatives who were present in the launch. In Kenya, this approach is being supported by international NGOs with an aim of sensitising communities to stop open defecation, through self-respect rather than maintaining "standards",   "In my entire life, I have never used or seen a pit latrine in this area. It's humiliating and demeaning to always relieve yourself in a single room so sure that your children are listening, if not peeping at you. They then grow up and repeat the same experience with their children." Patrick Mutua, 38, and a father of three says. He has just used the makeshift toilet they use during the day at Gumba village and it is evident from the look on his face that he is ashamed of the sanitation situation in Mathare slum.

A few meters from the makeshift toilet, music booms from a barber shop and the young men idling around are staring at the never ending cue. Perhaps the revealing nature of the torn sacks, that form the toilet walls, creating holes for them to peep through, bring catharsis relieve to them. Such is the false comfort with the situation and complacency of a section of the local population towards lack of a most basic facility. Yet the youth group that is seeking to reverse the situation still meets resistance, especially from the landlords. Not a single residential plot in this area has a toilet; only a negligible fraction has running water, and even fewer have electricity. There is not a single health facility around.

Back at the PAG church, the forum progresses with members expressing their desire to see the situation change in Mathare. They shared experiences on how other slums in the world have overcome similar problem. From Singapore, Nepal, India, Zambia and Ghana, participants debated on how to improve sanitation and restore dignity on this community. They were all in agreement on the need to construct toilets and to continue the triggering campaign. But the toilet picture is only one frame of a long reel of bigger pictures and challenges for Mathare, and other slum communities in Kenya.  High level of dependency especially on donors and resistance towards favorable behavioral change, were identified by a representative of a local NGO, as some of the bigger challenges.


"We cannot keep on waiting for donors to help us construct toilets. It is possible for only a few men and women to have a toilet up and ready for use in a day," Elizabeth Nyaberi, 42, offers. Her sentiments are shared by a development officer from Asia who thinks the solutions often offered by external participants are too complex for small local problems. "If today the community came together and decided to construct a public pit latrine, the role of external agencies would only be to provide them with logistical support and maybe food. Behavioral change is a long-term process, far beyond erecting one, two or even ten toilets. Community ownership and responsibility is paramount." He advised.

However, not all are in favour of public toilets, especially the plot owners who have a vested interest in the toilet problem. They would rather the funds are channeled to constructing toilets in the 'donated' spaces inside their plots. Several landowners and a local church have offered to donate spaces within their plots from where interested donors can construct toilets. But questions abound on the sustainability of this kind of an initiative. "Who will have access to these toilets in a private property? How will they be regulated? And most importantly, why haven't the landlords erected toilets for their tenants in the first place? Let the toilets be constructed in public places accessible to all. This way, we will be sure that they don't end up as private enterprises benefiting a few," Ms. Nyaberi argues.

The only government initiative on the sanitation problem in Mathare is in the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) incomplete latrines. Residents also blame laxity of the provincial administration and health ministry for the obtaining situation as they feel the authorities would have compelled plot owners to erect toilets in their plots. In the just promulgated constitution, the residents of Mathare under economic and social rights in Chapter 4 clause 43 1(b) have a right to reasonable standards of sanitation. They also have a right in clause 42 (a) to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures. Will these residents whose daily waste is averaged at half a kilogram per person finally begin to enjoy better sanitation services from the Government? Are they even aware that they have this right which must be delivered by the Government?

Meanwhile, the area has a total of about 2.5 tons of human waste circulating daily in their houses, churches, schools and in the food they eat since it's never collected. Children, the most vulnerable, are most affected and mortality rates are high in this slum, just like in many other informal settlements in Kenya. The poor hygienic environment is the cause of persistent outbreaks of communicable, but preventable diseases in this area.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 90% of communicable illnesses such as diahhorea and flu can be prevented through clean sanitation and observation of basic hygiene. This includes washing hands with soap after attending toilets, proper waste disposal and proper nutrition. But for the people of Mathare slum, they will first have to construct toilets and ensure they have clean flowing water. With a little introspection, innovation and community initiative, they might just regain their dignity; live healthy lives, stop the shit from getting into their plates, and for once, a call of nature will stop being a distressing, risky and delicate balancing affair atop flowing murk.

Picture by Amunga Esuchi

Originally published by The Big Issue Kenya. ©


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