A few months ago, I was at the airport awaiting the verdict on yet another cancelled flight. As hoards of passengers rushed towards the check-in section, I befriended a trio of angry Mozambican chefes. When the airline lady confirmed our worst fears— that the plane wouldn’t leave until the next morning— my new friends complained as I halfway rejoiced.
“Well at least we’ll have a warm shower.”
“What do you mean? You don’t have a shower at your house?”
“Nope, it’s just me and my pit latrine.” I replied, to three faces who were shocked and amused at the same time.
“You Americans are crazy.”
Pit latrines consecutively top the list of frequently asked questions that Peace Corps Volunteers have as they land in Mozambique. On my third day in Moz, arriving to my host family’s house, I was relieved to see that they had the nicest type of bathrooms for Namaacha— a dump flush. A real toilet placed over a hole inside their house— I was relieved that I didn’t need to learn how to squat over a black hole like my friends who were unfortunate enough to only have a pit latrine in their host houses.
After swear-in, I arrived to my new house in Malema, apprehensive and disappointed when I saw that I had gotten a outdoor bathroom, the new home of my pit latrine. Though I didn’t know it on day one, throughout its’ 17 months of use, my pit latrine would bring in praise from all volunteers who visited my house.
As trainees, there was a definite hierarchy in terms of toilets. The gold medal went to the flushable toilet that we all knew and loved, (one that would become a rarity in the next two years). Silver went to the dump flush. This mysterious entity was almost a toilet, just one with no running water— in order to flush, one would have to dump copious amounts of water at just the right angle to make number twos disappear— hence the name, dump flush. The bronze went to the pit latrine, the most under appreciated of all toilets. Though every pit latrine has their own personality- they are generally in an outhouse separated from the main house building. Made of a concrete block with a hole on it, in order to use it, one must perfect both their squatting and their aim. As trainees, its’ safe to say we were scared of pit latrines.
The hierarchy quickly changed as we started living on our own. My pit latrine – though scary to use at night and the home of a stubborn family of cockroaches, never smells. I can’t say the same for all my volunteer friends’ who have a dump flush. Though symbolically a fancier version of the pit latrine- the upkeep of a dump flush is ridiculous. My host mãe would spend 15 minutes scrubbing ours every day… turns out most volunteers aren’t as determined as she is to keep it clean.
Until I joined Peace Corps, I took every toilet I sat on for granted. Around the world, 2.5 billion people are still without access to improved sanitation, the fancy word used to determine a facility that separates human excreta from human contact, aka my pit latrine. The statistic for Sub Saharan Africa is even more shocking, the lowest in the world, with only 30% of the population having access to improved sanitation devices. Open defecation is a grave reality here. The issue with having a lack of access to improved sanitation facilities does not only mean that we have a smelly situation. It means disease. Even small amounts of human excreta can pass on diarrheal diseases, such as cholera. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under the age of five, disproportionately harmful for those affected with HIV.
Environmentally speaking, pit latrines are extremely environmentally friendly. I never need to dump water into it, And after perfecting the art of the bucket bath, (it’s surprisingly easy to rinse out conditioner with no shower!) I’ve been able to keep my water usage to under 20 liters a day (including drinking water), 1/20th or five percent of what the average American uses daily.
So the moral of the story is that even though I once doubted it, yes, my pit latrine, and everything it represents, is the shit, but that won’t take away from the fact that I will rejoice a bit when my flight is cancelled and I am put into a hotel with a flushing toilet and a shower with lots of water pressure.