Community says “No!” to eating faecal matter
Twelve-year-old Joseph Chinkhadze knew that each time a fly landed on his food, it probably carried his neighbours' faecal particles. “I wasn't surprised to see the flies as I knew people living here used the bush around my home as a toilet.”
So it was a huge relief when a team from the local government office visited Gwengwe village, in the central Malawian lakeside district of Salima where Joseph lives, to get them talking about their toilet habits.
“Our entry point was the village headman. We told him we would like to learn about how his community was living,” explains Noel Khunga, the Environmental Health Officer for Salima district. At first the people were too embarrassed to say anything, although Joseph and his peers in the village knew better.
“We got the people to participate using local materials like sticks and sand to represent their homes and where they relieved themselves. With the help of the flies, they soon found out that that they were actually eating each others' faeces,” says Khunga. “They wanted to know how they could change this situation.”
After three hours of animated discussion, the villagers were convinced that everyone needed to build a latrine with a cover. A committee was formed consisting of five men and five women as well as a children's group led by Joseph. The approach received the blessings of the village headman, Jamitan Watson. “This initiative is very important as it plays a key part in our survival. The toilets protect us from getting diarrhoea.” The sanitation committee and the children's group were trained by the local government team, with technical support from UNICEF, on topics such as good hygiene, washing hands with soap or ash at key times, and keeping the latrines clean.
It took the community one year for everyone to use a pit latrine, earning itself the status of “Open Defecation Free” (ODF), meaning that it had successfully eliminated defecation in places other than a toilet or pit latrine. Joseph and his group, as well as the committee, played a pivotal role in urging people to dig latrines, even if they could afford only the most basic type of latrine. Locally available scrap metals were used as lids. “I used to visit households that did not have a latrine or had poor hygiene and explain to them what they needed to do. People were keen to do it, once they understood,” he says. Although his family already had a latrine, Joseph concedes that it wasn't covered. They made one out of scrap metal and hooked it by rope to a beam above the enclosure.
The approach adopted by the village is part of an approach known as Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), which UNICEF is supporting. Rather than simply build latrines for households, the approach focuses on enabling community members to realise that they have a sanitation problem and to devise solutions that are within their reach. This simple, low-cost community initiative can have a major impact on child survival, helping to reduce diarrhoea, which is one of the major killers of children in Malawi. And preventing recurrent diarrhoea is another way to counter malnutrition.
Community-Led Total Sanitation needs to be scaled up throughout the country, as only 24 villages in 2008 and 156 in 2009 had acquired ODF status. While the 2006 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey showed that as many as 88% of Malawians had access to basic sanitation, many of the latrines were not used or were poorly maintained. And even if just one or two members do not have a cover over their latrine, flies spread disease to neighbours who do.
Cholera is a particular threat to all ages, especially during the rainy season. Every year, outbreaks of cholera bring untold misery and death to communities, particularly those along the lake. During the first six months of 2009, for example, 234 people were treated for cholera and three fatalities were reported in Salima district alone.
Since it was declared ODF, Joseph's village has not recorded a single incidence of cholera or diarrhoeal disease. “In the past, there had been a lot of diarrhoeal diseases in this village especially during the rainy season from November to March, but in the last year there have been no cases,” says Khunga.
But the village is not complacent. The sanitation committee and Joseph's group have continued with their activities. They hold monthly meetings with their community and twice a month conduct street theatre with themes based on environmental sanitation. The crowds revel in the plays as they are also a great source of entertainment for the village.
“The number of flies has dramatically reduced,” Joseph says with a chuckle.