Saturday, January 30, 2010

We're Building Latrines!

So, shockingly enough, I've been here for almost a year. I'm gonna shy away from that abyss for a minute to tell you about this latrine project that's taking up so much of my attention these days. I've talked about it with some of you already, but I'm excited about it and my mind is filled with its details. So I'm gonna go ahead and share.

Most of the few jokes I heard about the Peace Corps while growing up were based on the premise that an ignorant and oblivious volunteer, filled with the best of intentions and befuddled by massive amounts of marijuana, was dropped head first into a village and immediately began the construction of several latrines. When he left, people stopped using and cleaning them and went back to pooping in the bushes. The latrines just didn't fit in with their lives. This was a cautionary tale, a warning against the way most people thought development workers (and Peace Corps volunteers specifically, I suppose) went about their work. Anyway, the message sunk in.

I've known for a while that the volunteer I had replaced had written a grant requesting money for several villages, including Ndiago, to build latrines. The money came through a while ago. So for months now, I've been thinking about that story. I won't say the memory of it made me hesitate to start the work, but I did smart a little each time I thought of making a beginning. But I'm headed back to the village with the money in a day or two, and at the moment, the men and women of 12 compounds in Ndiago are digging pits and preparing to begin construction. Here's what we've done so far, and what we're going to be doing next.

I started talking up latrines a little bit and trying to gauge the level of interest. Mostly, this involved visiting with the families and heads of household and drinking the tiny sweet cups of tea that are an afternoon tradition in Senegal. It turns out that of the 26 compounds in the village, each with maybe 10 to 20 people living in them, 11 already had latrines. That's pretty good coverage, compared to a lot of places, so everyone had heard of latrines and was familiar with the purported health benefits that went along with using them. Nobody's a fan of pooping in the bush, so naturally, interest was pretty high.

One afternoon, after the hottest part of the day had passed, I sat down at a meeting in the village center with the heads of most of the compounds and several of the most prominent women. My counterparts, the two villagers who work with me most closely and answer all my awkward questions about the Wolof language and Senegalese culture, were also there. Fama, one of the little girls who lives in my compound and who usually accompanies me on all work-related errands, also was in attendance; but she was shooed from her usual station on my lap once the meeting got started.

With some help from my counterparts, I explained to the men and women where the money was coming from, how much was available, and what it could be used for. The money covers materials for construction only: each household will have to contribute a small in-kind amount and also cover the cost of labor. And while 15 compounds in the village lacked latrines, we only had enough money now for 12. I explained that I thought that if we did a good job, I would be writing another small grant to cover the costs of the remaining latrines.

But for now, I wanted to form a Hygiene Committee. Two men would be in charge of overseeing construction, working with the mason, and going in to the road town and bringing back the cement and other materials. Two women would be responsible for collecting the money and overseeing various educational aspects. After some training with me, they'd be going from compound to compound teaching about latrine maintenance, what types of dangerous trash should be put into the latrines instead of allowed to sit around (batteries, old pesticides, etc.), and the importance of washing your hands with soap and water after using the latrine. The village chief and another local leader would both have representatives on the committee as well. It would be better, I thought, if this group of people could help the people of Ndiago to bring latrines to themselves. If it worked, I would help this group of people get the training they need on how to write grant requests. My hope is that the group is able to build a wall around the elementary school in Ndiago at some point in the near future. I was trying to communicate the concept of sustainable development: when I go home, the village can do small construction projects for itself, from the first step to the last. That's the idea, anyway.

Everyone took to the idea pretty well. The group immediately took over the meeting, and I spent most of the rest of it in silence, waiting and listening. First they talked about who the men on the committee should be: who knew enough about building latrines? Who knew suppliers in the roadtown? And then they turned the conversation over to the women present: which women had been educated enough to be able to turn a position like this into a good opportunity for themselves? Who would be good at going from house to house, patiently explaining the same material over and over again? All this went fairly smoothly, and whenever they agreed on a name I wrote it down happily.

Then the part I had been a little apprehensive about came around. There just wasn't enough money to cover latrines for everyone. So who would be left out? The men and women quickly came up with a list of the compounds lacking latrines. There were lots of questions that I wouldn't have been able to answer myself: was the Thiare household a separate entity, or was it really attached to the Gningue compound? The conversation was long, and obviously a little uncomfortable for some people present. But they considered the distances between neighboring compounds, the number of children living in each house, and other factors until they came up with a list of 12 households. Not everyone directly benefited from the results of the discussion, but when we all went home, I think everyone felt satisfied with the way things had been decided. All in all, people are excited about the project and interested in pursuing it in this slightly unusual way.

For my part, I was ecstatic. From this moment, the very first step in bringing latrines to Ndiago, the community had taken responsibility for the work very seriously. My input and guidance was helpful on some matters, and that will perhaps continue to be the case. But this village is changing itself for the better. These days, I'm feeling privileged and excited to be along for the ride.

There's a big religious festival this week, and most people have cleared out for a few days to attend. And I'll be heading up to Dakar soon for a conference and the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (no, really), so besides the pits being dug, work is on hold for a couple weeks. But that's the way it is in Senegal. Everyone stops what they're doing five times a day to pray, and when there's a baptism or a wedding or a funeral in Ndiago or the neighboring villages, we all take the afternoon off and get dressed up to go help our neighbors celebrate life in style. This rhythm of life has been frustrating to me in the past, but I think I'm coming around to it now. And a couple of months from today, if all the latrines get built and we talk enough about washing your hands with soap and water, I'm thinking that we're going to see something impressive in Ndiago.

So yeah, these are good days.

Love and guts,



  1. Dig one for me. And I recommend Charmin, unscented, ultrastrong. You go girl!
    Sir Jack

  2. All very well and good, my dear, but is it not time for a bleeding? I assure you, you will feel even better. Allow me to apply my leeches.

  3. You have some very strange associates awaiting each new post. Probably best to ignore them or take them with a grain of salt, as it were.

  4. Your PC blog is very entertaining and instructive. Thanks. John-RPCV/Senegal

  5. This sounds awesome, Jessie. It sounds like you've been able to bring the people into the development process in a way I never really was able to do (I tried, it just never really seemed to work out). So that's awesome that they've been able to take this over like that. Yeah Ndiago! And yeah latrines! :)