Jesus wants you to build a toilet

Recently Alexis Grant mentioned on The Traveling Writer that someone had googled “best travel memoir’s by women” and landed on her blog. It made her day.

This piqued my curiosity. How were people (people other than my mother, that is) landing on my blog?

It took a while to figure out how to get this information, but a bit of my own googling eventually told me how to access the search terms on the blog stats page. So without further ado…

The number one search terms – lisa mckay and lisa mckay laos – made total sense to me.

The second most trafficked search terms – laos and laos writing – made less sense. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible to google an entire country and find my blog, but perhaps this is an unanticipated bonus to living in the least developed landlocked nation in Asia.

Then things started to get even weirder. The following search terms all showed up on the list:

  1. Lao snake
  2. giant snake Laos
  3. sneck in laos (no, I am not making these up)
  4. daaaaaate in asia.com
  5. pepsi from the fat of pig
  6. zozo spray India (pretty sure that one’s your fault, Jos)
  7. pebbles like girl scouts
  8. tropical waterfall
  9. honeymoon constipated
  10. poo laos existence
  11. males doing toilet on roads

If I were to take this as a guide to the sort of content my readers really want, I might conclude that my niche market is writing about toilets (or lack thereof) in Laos. That and snakes.

So for all you lovers of toilet stories, today I have a really good one for you. It was written by Mike a couple of years ago and published here by Reuters AlertNet. Enjoy.

Jesus wants you to build a toilet

by Mike Wolfe

“Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women,” I told Pastor Barry in my best broken Tok Pisin. Normally I feel a bit annoyed when people make Jesus the poster child for their personal cause. I remember, for example, the billboard in Atlanta a few years ago that showed a picture of a cherubic Jesus and stated “Jesus was a vegetarian.” I laughed nearly every time I saw it.

But Pastor Barry wore a baseball cap that sported the phrase “Jesus is my boss”, so I figured I had his attention.

We were sitting on a bamboo bench on Petats Island in Papua New Guinea. A refreshing sea breeze rustled the coconut palms and mango trees. The bright red hibiscus flowers danced in the wind. It was a beautiful Pacific morning. A perfect day for conducting an evaluation of the water and sanitation project that World Vision is implementing in the region.

I had just inspected one of the new ventilated improved pit toilets built near the church. It’s a really well constructed toilet. And Pastor Barry keeps a lock on it. The women told me it’s only used on Sundays or special occasions. Apparently Pastor Barry doesn’t want people using it regularly. So most of the time people go in the bush or walk into the sea. But sometimes they get to use the nice new toilet.

I asked the women whether they liked it. They giggled, perhaps on account of my broken Tok Pisin, and perhaps because they were embarrassed that a white man with notebook, camera and funny GPS unit strung around his neck was asking them whether they like defecating in the lone toilet. After the initial embarrassment, the eyes of one of the women lit up. “Yes,” she told me. “We feel safe with the toilet.”

The United Nations has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Sanitation. That may seem irrelevant for those of us who are able to flush and forget. But roughly one third of people on the planet don’t have access to improved sanitation. That more or less means 2 billion people relieve themselves in the bush.

Lack of improved sanitation has all sorts of negative effects on public health. Like dead children – diarrhea is still the leading cause of death for children under five. Like the additional burden for mothers who regularly have to take care of a sick child. Like cholera outbreaks – ever hear of cholera occurring in a place with improved sanitation? Nope.

Sanitation is a basic human need. If you look at the data from New York, London, and Paris before those cities built sewers, you’ll see their mortality rates were about the same as mortality rates today in Sub Saharan Africa.

On my first year in an overseas posting as a water and sanitation engineer, my focus was on improving access to clean water and sanitation. Women in displacement camps in northern Uganda would often wait in line for two hours to pump water, while some 1500 schoolchildren would have to share two toilets. So we drilled more wells and built more toilets.

I spent my second year in Sri Lanka where thousands of houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. In addition to rebuilding schools, health clinics, and homes, we installed hundreds of wells and built hundreds of toilets.

In Papua New Guinea I’ve begun focusing more on improving hygiene practices than building infrastructure. We can build lots of toilets, but what if people don’t actually use them? (Happens more often than you may think.) And if people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, it’s likely there will be hardly any improvements in health.

So for the past year my focus has been on behavior change: improving hygiene practices that complement improvements in infrastructure. But while assessing this project, I’ve been particularly moved by something that isn’t directly related to safe water or improved sanitation.

Before our project, the women walked an hour or more to get water. To relieve themselves, they walked far into the bush or the mangroves. The women told us they used to get sexually assaulted by men hiding in the bush. Now that there are water taps and toilets close to their homes, they no longer get attacked on trips to fetch water or go to the loo.

Domestic and sexual violence against women is prevalent in the Pacific. I reckon that women tend to get the short end of the stick all around the world but it seems to me to be particularly bad here. In the Pacific, the women are damn lucky if they get any of the stick at all, because most of the time the men take the stick and beat them with it. Given a choice, I reckon I’d prefer to be a woman in Afghanistan than a woman in PNG.

On Petats the women told me that they felt safe when they used the new toilet.

“You know the Bible and I know the Bible,” I said to Pastor Barry. “You know that Jesus loved the mamas and he loved the weak and the vulnerable. I think Jesus wants you to build a toilet for the women.”

I hope he will.

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9 responses to “Jesus wants you to build a toilet

  1. Now you are truly a blogger! You are shamelessly cross-posting Mike’s writing about PNG on your blog 🙂 I also note that you had 15 posts in July, 16 in August, but only 6 in September so far. Publish or drop like cement in the rankings! Oh well, tell Mike it’s a great post! I guess you already knew that, which is why you reposted it 🙂 And a great photo too! Which reminds me I want to post something my son wrote on my email updates, which I’m overdue to update on my own anachronistic schedule.

    • Yes, shameless, I know. It’s just that it was so on topic… and so good… and also that it’s really hard some days to work on the book all morning and then come up with a decent blog post in the afternoon (and I do feel some self-induced pressure to put at least SOME thought into them). So, on occasion, I plan to borrow Mike’s thought 🙂

  2. Yeah, sorry for the crazy search term. I just looked at the terms for my site . . . SCARY. “mom boobs” and “nudie girls” were alarmingly high on the list. As you know, that’s not really what I write about. Sigh.

    Not that I have ever met Mike, but I like him even more after reading his article. “I reckon that women tend to get the short end of the stick all around the world but it seems to me to be particularly bad here. In the Pacific, the women are damn lucky if they get any of the stick at all, because most of the time the men take the stick and beat them with it.” So glad he can see that, acknowledge it, and put it in writing. Probably you should keep him. 😉

  3. This was like a bonus post… a bit of Lisa being hilarious, a bit of Mike being thoughtful. Even though we have only met briefly, I think you should know I think you two are tops. 🙂 I love funny/reflective couples.

    • Thanks for this Sally. I am going to try and get Mike to guest post occasionally, but he’s snowed right now. Why isn’t your name linked to your blog by the way??? I can’t seem to navigate to it off your photo or your name.

      • So odd. I’m not sure why as I have a wordpress blog and that’s what I’m using to post my comments. I’ll work on getting this sorted. Thanks for the head’s up. 🙂

  4. Here’s a toilet story (sort of) of my own…
    You may remember (though I don’t know why you would) that my dissertation had a sanitation component to it. I went to my cousin’s wedding and as she was introducing me to the best man, he exclaimed, “Oh! You’re the one who studies how people s–t!”

    Not really how expected to be greeted but I think it might be marginally better than the student who, seeing me on campus some months after a lecture on child mortality in the developing world, said, “Hey, it’s the dead baby woman!”

    • Yeah… wow. You’ve got range. Those are two tags that are… well… less than socially desirable. At polite dinner parties, anyway. It was so good chatting with you this morning.

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