March 18, 2005
The VIP Toilet
You may think that you are going to be reading about a bathroom for dignitaries, but this is much more fascinating. I guess you will just have to trust me on this one…
As you can imagine in a country where only 9% of the population have access to running water, sanitation is a huge problem. Most people in Malawi have pit toilets. These work well in rural areas, but in crowded cities such as Ndirande and Zingwagwa, where homes and outhouses are crammed together, there can be massive health problems. It comes as no surprise when diseases such as cholera hit these vulnerable areas.
However, other densely populated areas are prone to problems as well. One of these places is schools. When schools are constructed, the most important things are the school walls and roof. Often no sanitary facilities are constructed. I have seen young girls on the playground, squat down, urinate, and then get up and resume play in the same spot. Recently, Blantyre Synod built latrines for a school that has 9,000 pupils. There were no toilets whatsoever prior to that.
On our trip to Balaka, we got to visit a school that also just built latrines because of a program funded by the Projects Office.
It all started when teachers and traditional authorities (the village chief and elders) noticed that there were many children (mostly girls) in the area that were not attending school. When they questioned the families, they discovered that many of these girls were not attending because they did not want to have to take care of their personal needs in the bushes near the school. So it was decided that latrines should be built.
The problem with regular outhouses is that they breed germs. Flies in particular, enter, eat, and then fly out and spread disease through the community. To combat this, specially designed latrines called Ventilation Improved Pits (VIP) were designed and are being built all over sub-Saharan Africa. These are slightly more expensive than basic pit toilets, but are preferred because they prevent flies from spreading germs.
A VIP toilet consists of a pit covered with a slab of concrete. There is a squat hole, a semi-dark brick building, and a vent pipe which goes through the slab and the roof and up about two feet. As long as the latrine is dark inside (which it is) the flies will follow the light up the vent pipe. The end of the vent pipe is screened to prevent flies from escaping and spreading germs to the community.
The people of Yonamu Village were so proud of their new toilets, that the entire village was there to greet us. The chief himself gave us a tour of the new structures. Then we visited the one room grass classrooms and two other classrooms. One was a large rock where students sit outside, and the other was an open space in the bush with a few logs and a small portable blackboard that had been set up for the older students.
We sat and listened to the chief, the elders and the headmaster of the school give speeches and tell us how glad they were to have the new VIP latrines, and how they hoped to be able to build a brick school with an iron sheet roof soon. They were also anxious to install a borehole nearby, so that the children could have a safe, clean source of water, too. The problem is always funding. While these speeches were going on, the men sat in front of us in the shade, and the women were in the rear baking in the hot sun.
In the meantime, the children were all in their classrooms doing lessons on their own, while their teachers talked with us. Some of them had on bright purple uniforms with white collars. Others were too poor to afford the $4 for school clothes.
After we signed the Village guestbook, the entire village waved goodby as we left. It is still amazing to me that something so basic can have such a great impact.