Monday, June 18, 2012

The Pit Latrine

When Dan and I moved into our new house in Zobue, we explored our new outdoor bathroom with caution.  It was a brick building, held together by gratuitous handfuls of mud spackling. Two bricks were removed from each wall, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the dusty cement floor.  Each side-- the shower and the toilet-- had its own wooden door.  The latches were old and could barely connect, but the doors did close.  It was a fine little building, although the stench was wretched.  

There was only one problem with the latrine in our yard, and that was that it was almost full.  It had been in use for years, apparently.  At about ten feet deep and four feet wide in either direction, it was home to nearly 160 cubic feet of human excrement.  

The level of waste was dangerously high under the floor of our new latrine.  It was alive with maggots and worms and churned constantly in the glow of our midnight-visit headlamps (yes, we looked).  The best way to describe level of excrement (or the amount of space that we had left) was to describing it according to "the condom."  

"The condom" was just that-- a discarded condom that, long ago, had fallen flat into the latrine. Instead of sinking, it became puffed full of gas and began to stand upright.  As the level of the latrine continued to rise, the condom rose, too, until it was poking out of the latrine hole like the spire on the Eiffel Tower.  It was right about then that our landlady decided to spring for a new latrine.

At that point, it was still January.  We were knee-deep into the rainy season, and our landlady was loathe to commit to a big, muddy project. Instead, she decided to just "dig out the back" of the old latrine.  This seemed like a terrible idea, but, having little expertise on the matter, Dan and I chose to remain silent.  

Our landlady hired a man to dig a large hole in the back of our current pit latrine.  As the contents of the latrine started to spill into the second hole, the level of waste in the original pit began to drop.  It was working-- to an extent.  It seemed that this was about as far in advance as anyone had actually planned this particular operation, however.  The digger lept out of the new hole in a hurry and surveyed his work.  Nodding and lighting a cigarette, he covered the area with a grass mat and walked away.  

That afternoon, it started to drizzle.  Within a few hours, that drizzle turned into a downpour that continued, unabated, for the rest of the night.  In fact, it rained without stopping for the next three days.  When Dan and I finally went outside to check on the status of our new latrine-hole, we were mortified.  The three-day deluge had ripped open the back of the newest pit, sending the contents cascading OUT of the latrine and down the path, loose in the town of Zobue.  I like to envision that the condom itself washed right to the front steps of our landlady's porch.  

Since our latrine was effectively ruined, we began to share a latrine with our neighbors.  It hasn't been so bad, but I have struggled with the tin slab that is propped up in the doorframe. This tin slab acts as a door but, because it connected at the bottom and not at the top of the doorframe, it has a tendency to fall away entirely, leaving the user groping for privacy.  

Just this week, our landlady has finally scraped together enough money to start building a new pit latrine in our front yard.  Located just feet from the original pit latrine, this building has been built over the course of several days, using wood, brick, and metal from our old latrine.  For your pleasure, I have taken pictures of the construction process.  Perhaps this will serve as a sort of How-To for those who are moved to build their own pit latrines, in the future.  See "Why I Love My Pit Latrine," below, for inspiration.

Building a Latrine, Stage 1:  Dig hole
Building a Latrine, Stages 2-4:  Emerge from hole, add concrete cover,
and demarcate the new walls of the brick latrine
Building a Latrine, Stages 5-7:  Dismantle old latrine, use bricks and mud
to erect the walls of the new latrine, build to desired height, then add doors
 and remove two bricks from each wall to serve as windows.  A new latrine!

Why I Love My Pit Latrine

I had no idea, when I came to Africa, that I would come to love my pit latrine so fiercely.  I would go so far as to say, yes, I am a devoted follower of the Pit Latrine.  I am an avid Latriner, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  

1.  Pit latrines are the world's greatest hiding-place.  They are, in the words of so many volunteers, "A Shit-Filled Hole in the Ground."  Anything can be thrown into a latrine, and it doesn't matter.  A rotten egg?  Broken Glass?  Cockroach bodies?  Bloated ticks?  Toss 'em in!  Everything that goes into a latrine effectively disappears.  Once an object has sunk below the surface, it will never be seen again. 

2.  Pit latrines are simple.  Again, a pit latrine is literally just a gaping hole in the ground.  It is very difficult to get confused and make a mistake when using a outdoor latrine.  For the sake of the simple-minded, most pit latrines even have concrete footprints to demonstrate exactly where the user should stand.  

3.  The pit latrine does not waste water.  While most flushing toilets in Africa are "water down" toilets, demanding buckets and buckets of precious water, the pit latrine is flush-free.  Even better, it can take toilet paper.  Rather than stuff dirty tissues into a sticky-looking trashbin on the bathroom floor, the pit latriner can simply toss all of their waste into the curdled abyss.  This is much more hygenic.

4.  The pit latrine is private.  The user does not have to feel embarrassed about bathroom noises, because the pit latrine is far away from where other people like to congregate.  No more holding your breath and leaning to one side, praying that no one is listening.  You're in a separate building, for heaven's sake.  You could play a vuvuzela in there, if you wanted to.

5.  Finally, the pit latrine is so darn efficient.  It's easier to use the bathroom when the bowels are perpendicular to the floor.  And that's just a fact.

In honor of World Toilet Day (November 19 of 2011 or 2012, take your pick, as it's currently June), I give you an original artwork-- "Pit Latrine Versus Indoor Toilet"-- followed by a bathroom tour of Zobue.  Enjoy!

Pit Latrines vs. Indoor Toilets
Three pit latrines:  The girls' room at the secondary school, a shower-house/latrine combo, and a shower-shack
Our current latrine, which we are sharing with our next door neighbors (note the upside-down WC on the door), two double shower/latrines (on grass and one brick), and another fancy toilet at the secondary school
Grass shower-shack, a double-sided latrine with an iron gate, and brick latrine with slotted windows (note the word MAN carved into the concrete, by the entrance)


  1. this is the funniest and much making sense thing I've ever read. really helped with my assignment.. thank you.

  2. I was delighted to read your blog and hear of your appreciation for one of the simplest things anyone can experience. We have fallen so far from the necessities. Good will, and god speed!

  3. I loved reading this. (: crazy how different some things are in different countries. It makes me appreciate how i live here. ��

  4. An outhouse by any name is still an outhouse.

    And I hate to say this, but I would rather waste a little water to avoid the smell.