CLAPPING and ululations ring out across the village as members of the Community Health Club dance and sing their hearts out . . . in praise of lavatories.
Every Sunday, they gather under the trees in Mwandiga Trois to learn about hand-washing and hygiene, and agree to share what they have learned with their neighbours. Each meeting begins with a lively rendition of a song which is sung with evangelical fervour:
“Community, we must build a toilet
We must have a bathroom
We must wash our hands with soap or ash
We must have a rubbish pit
To protect our health.”
As club members take their seats in the shade, a softly-spoken woman, Bawili, takes the floor. With simple diagrams and gentle persuasion, she encourages them all to build lavatories — for themselves, and for their neighbours.
BAWILI was the obvious choice when the group voted in their first president. She was among the first to join the community health clubs which Toilet Twinning helped to fund in this remote part of eastern DRC. She never missed a meeting, and always arrived first.
She had her reasons, as she explains later, inside her mud-brick hut.
Bawili’s daughter, Ebinda, was 14 when she was attacked. It was early evening, and she had ventured into the bush to relieve herself. As Ebinda crouched down, someone grabbed her neck. She doesn’t know how many of them there were: she could not see. They pushed her to the ground.
Bawili saw the bruises around Ebinda’s neck as she ran in, crying, and knew instantly what had happened.
For three days, Ebinda received treatment from Médecins Sans Frontières. As a result of the attack, she became pregnant, and left school. “The doctors told me this wouldn’t have happened if we’d had a toilet at home,” she says. Her son, who is now six, peeps out shyly from behind her legs.
But Bawili could not afford to build a latrine. Her husband had been shot dead during an insurgency in 1998, after which the rest of the family fled to Tanzania. For the next ten years, their home was a refugee camp. When, in 2008, that camp was closed, they were forcibly repatriated to South Kivu province, in eastern Congo.
They came to Mwandiga with nothing, and found nothing there: no water, no sanitation, no homes, no school. It’s a lush and fertile area close to Lake Tanganyika, but they had to start again from scratch. Their new neighbours, like them, were strangers from across Congo, lumped together as “returnees”. In those early days, cholera and diarrhoea were widespread.
The family could afford only one jerry can; so Ebinda would make the journey to the lake for water three times a day: a 90-minute round trip.
DURING the civil war, rape was routinely used as a weapon of war. Armed insurgents crossing the border from nearby Rwanda and Burundi made South Kivu a flashpoint for sexual violence against women.
A few months after they settled in Mwandiga, Ebinda was bitten by a snake in the bush — and the hospital didn’t have any anti-venom serum. She says that she has felt weak ever since.
A few months later, she was raped. Stigma is almost as damaging as rape itself: husbands reject wives who are raped, and girls who have been raped become unmarriageable.
Bawili has struggled to come to terms with what happened. “I remember thinking that if my husband had still been here, maybe we could have had a toilet and a wash-room at home. This happened because he was not here.”
DESPITE being a widow with three children of her own, she took in her two nephews when her sister died. She built their home; she grows their crops.
She is strong and determined, but life has been hard. The lack of a proper latrine for her family was a concern, and not just for their health.
“People would shout abuse at us and despise us for using the bush. Passers-by would shout at us, saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ We used to feel shame when people visited us and we didn’t have a toilet for them to use.”
Things changed when the local community health club began in 2013. Christian development agency Tearfund, whose water and sanitation programme is funded by Toilet Twinning, piloted these clubs. The aim was to teach villagers about hygiene, and help them work together to improve sanitation. Tearfund provided the initiative and training — but it’s the community who make change happen.
Now, many households in Mwandiga have a latrine. Families are also building bathing areas and shelves for cooking utensils; they are installing “tippy taps” (water containers that are operated by foot, reducing the transmission of bacteria) for hand-washing; and they are placing rubbish in pits. Tearfund has also dug a borehole, ending Ebinda’s long treks to the lake.
I LOVE the fact that something as basic as a pit latrine can have a huge impact. I see it time and again when I visit the work we help fund through Toilet Twinning. It’s so simple, so practical — and the many people who have twinned their lavatories at home with latrines abroad seem to like it, too. But Bawili’s story brings home to me just how life-changing a long-drop (pit latrine) can be.
As club president, Bawili has a new status among her neighbours. She also has fresh purpose as she sees how the club’s efforts to champion sanitation are transforming lives.
She was insistent that villagers should build their own latrine — despite not having one herself. “Don’t look at me,” she’d say. “I can’t afford a toilet, but you must do this for your family’s health and safety.”
Last year, the club decided that its president should have a toilet, too. Members dug the pit for her: Bawili helped make the bricks for the walls.
Her new latrine is her pride and joy. “Our toilet brings us freedom, privacy, and dignity as a family. I am so thankful: it’s a big relief.”
Members of the club have gone on to build latrines for others in difficult circumstances. As Bawili explains, building latrines together is also helping to build a sense of community in a once-fractured place.
“We’re learning to work together,” Bawili says. “We encourage the whole community to unite, and to love each other. If there is no love, we cannot build a good society.”
DRC remains one of the poorest countries in Africa, and the threat of renewed violence is ever-present. There are fears that, if presidential elections are delayed for much longer, civil war may erupt again.
The people of Mwandiga have no influence over what happens at national level — but they are starting to take control of their own lives.
A pit latrine is indeed a simple construction. But, if you’ve built it yourself, believing that you can improve life for your family, it represents something powerful.
It is a statement of faith that tomorrow can be better than today, and that you can help shape your future. For me, and for Bawili, a toilet is a pretty good picture of hope.
Lorraine Kingsley is CEO of Toilet Twinning, which helps to fund water and sanitation work worldwide. On World Toilet Day, November 19, its annual Big Push encourages as many people as possible to twin their toilet in 24 hours