Perhaps this is over sharing, but I’m going to do it anyway. I have used the toilet 7 times so far today. Most days I don’t even think about it – but today I did. Even if I had the most water efficient (flushing) toilet, I would have used 21 litres so far – double the amount of water that the average person in Uganda uses for all of their daily activities each day – cooking, cleaning, washing, and so on. So what would you do without a loo?
Chickens or chicken pox? Or both?I thought about my Grandad a lot today. To put it mildly, he hasn’t been very well for the last couple of years – he has been to the hospital and had access to some of the best doctors in the country, he has a palliative care nurse and a doctor who come to see him in the comfort of his own home, he has oxygen delivered to his door, and he has medication accessible to him as and when he needs it.
As I walked through the local Amuria health centre this morning, I wondered what my friends in the UK who have recently had children would say if they saw chickens clucking their way through their local NHS maternity ward. Or if they saw that there is only one delivery room and the “maternity ward” is actually a general ward with men, women and children, and no privacy what so ever – so god forbid that 2 people are in labour at the same time – unlikely with 120 births per month (4/day)?? Or perhaps if their own relatives had to come to stay with them on make shift mattresses on the floor…next to the chickens. Or better still, if these same relatives had to play their part in cleaning the hospital and the latrines because the starkly available medical staff had so many sick people to attend to. I didn’t take any photos for obvious reasons but I’ll leave the onward journey of these patients to your imagination. One of the key things that this hospital was missing was access to clean water and safe toilets / sanitation. I felt (and still do feel) so privileged to have my grandad’s company to enjoy.
Lost in translation; defecating in public
I didn’t expect to meet the Public Health Minister of Uganda today. But the story across the road from the health centre this afternoon was much more positive. Amuria Primary School were hosts to the National World Toilet Day celebrations. Again, poems, songs, marches, drama presentations – that I’m not even going to try to describe as it simply won’t do justice to them. Let me just say that it is clear that the weekly hygiene and sanitation lessons have made a huge difference. I would never have thought that a group of teenage girls would be so proud and so eager to explain how they have been taught to make their own sanitary towels – which means they are able to come to school when they are on their period. Or to hear young children talk so passionately to each other about the importance of sanitation. Doesn’t really echo the local playground conversations in London…
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does sweep stakes at weddings on the length of the speeches… Today’s presentations and addresses about World Toilet Day however were on another level – four hours later and they were still going. The introductions of absolutely everyone, the recap of the two page agenda each time a new person spoke, the repetition of the last person’s speech which hadn’t been cross checked with anyone else’s…think a slightly disorganised version of the houses of parliament with a few random additions to the agenda here and you’re getting closer... I’ll be honest and say that we were all pretty jaded by the end of it.
But then I realised the enormity of what was actually happening. What seemed like a political game of ping pong and borderline slandering match, was actually the result of a very community focused group of people. The addresses to the political leaders were messages that had been passed up the hierarchical chain within the community. So this was a massive opportunity for everyone to have their voices heard. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone – children, adults, elderly people, goats, chickens, you name it, they were there. What seemed like a long and drawn out series of speeches was actually a moment in history, when for the first time in Uganda, there has been an acknowledgment from parliament for the need to put water and sanitation at the heart of national policies - starting with a petition “committing to eliminate open defecation in Uganda”. A seemingly small and specific commitment; but also one which has the potential to save the lives of thousands and boost economic prosperity as people become healthier and able to work even harder than they already do.
Things aren’t always what they seemThree years ago there was a “shaming ceremony” at a national parliament meeting - the local Amuria councillor was asked to stand because his district was one of the worst in the country for access to safe water and sanitation (38% access). Today it has been chosen as the host district for World Toilet Day because it has some of the best in the country (88% access). A remarkable feat in only 3 years if you think about it.
I’ve heard people pass comment about “well why are there so many problems if Water Aid are doing all of this work?” The short answer – because it takes time (a lot of time) to get political and inter-organisational buy in and co-operation. Today that was achieved through some of Water Aid’s work, along with the work of many others within the county.
And on that note, we handed over our final bag of pencils today. The head teacher thanked us and said “these pencils weigh more than the weight of the bag they are in. I hope to see the future president emerge from this bag.” What seemed like a very small thing to me, was so much more than that. Things really aren’t always as they seem.