Growing up in an American town and attending first-world schools, I learned that an organism must have food, water, and shelter in order to survive. The need to eliminate waste did not make the list, possibly because there’s nothing stopping your typical organism from doing so freely, and possibly because it’s an unpleasant thing to dwell on. Looking back on my past experiences traveling, I have strong memories of sights and food and people but I don’t have any vivid recollections of toilets. That changed when I was sent to South Africa with the Peace Corps. A good toilet performs its function and is easily forgotten, but a bad toilet stays with you.
Dealing with pit latrines is a common experience that unites Peace Corps Volunteers. Even though conditions and culture can vary greatly from country to country and village to village, something that we have in common is that we’ve all pooped in holes, and in general taken up another way of living than what we were born into. But for a significant percentage of the world’s population, using pit latrines is done on a daily basis and indeed all they’ve ever known, not something that is simply done for a two year stint.
Statistics published by UNICEF show that 40% of the world’s population does not have access to adequate sanitation. Not all pit latrines should be called inadequate, though, just the memorable ones. Although sometimes it can be hard to draw the line between adequate and inadequate, it’s understood that for sanitation to be adequate, it must separate waste from potential human contact and preserve the dignity of the user. Digging a pit and building a structure over it is a cheap and effective way of doing just that. In South Africa, one initiative of the post-apartheid government that’s hard to criticize is having the Department of Health construct pit latrines for rural households that previously had none.
Something that I’ve heard from Volunteers working in less developed African countries is that it can be hard to convince a rural population to use pit latrines rather than the even lower-tech open field. After all, it works for the cows. The reason given is that pit latrines smell bad, a fact which is unfortunately and immutably true. The smell can be mitigated by proper maintenance, but for all but the most infrequently used toilets, it is unavoidable. What’s hard to teach, especially to a people who believe that witchcraft is a more likely cause for a disease than bacteria, is that waste in the open can contaminate food and water sources and lead to serious illness, particularly among children.
It would seem that collecting human waste in a pit would pose a health risk. After all, water comes from the ground. In places far from a city, such as my village, people can get water from communal taps built on street corners, but some families will also have boreholes drilled on their property for when the taps are dry, which they often are. Could it be dangerous to have a pit latrine too close to a borehole? Provided that it’s properly maintained, no. A person with healthy kidneys is not going to pass more than a few liters of urine per day, so the flow of fluid into the pit should not be torrential. What doesn’t evaporate may leech into the ground, but contaminants won’t permeate far enough through the soil to reach the water table. Some pits will be lined with bricks or other casing for structural integrity, and it’s not the end of the world if the lining develops cracks. For the most part, a user of a pit latrine will not know or care what, exactly, is under him.
Historically, inadequate sanitation has been a cause of infant mortality. Young children don’t have the immune system to suppress waste-born diseases, and their growing bodies need the nutrients that diarrhea causes them to lose. The low infant mortality rate in the developed world owes as much to our sewer systems as it does to our doctors. But in homes with pit latrines, small children often don’t use them. The seat is too high for them to climb, and then they risk falling in the hole. Instead, children are sent elsewhere to do their business and the waste is cleaned up afterwards (or not). At the crèche (preschool, borrowed from British terminology), where children below school age sometimes spend the day, there are properly sized latrines so the children can be well-trained for when they graduate to real school. It’s sad to say that South Africa has a high infant mortality rate due to malnutrition and diarrheal infections. The rate has recently risen because of the HIV epidemic (and because infant deaths are less likely to go unreported nowadays). Every year, the crèche has a big graduation party. The five-year-old children who have survived the window of infant mortality are dressed in caps and gowns and treated to day-long festivities. It’s the biggest event of their childhood.
The most deliberate thing one can do to ruin a pit latrine is to put in foreign objects that don’t belong—a practice that’s all too common due to confusion about how to use one properly. When my cohort of trainees arrived in South Africa, Peace Corps staff explained bucket bathing and our host families showed us how to wash clothes by hand, but we were left to our own devices to figure out the toilets. It’s easy once you suppress the instinct look for a flush handle. I’ve heard tales of other Peace Corps Volunteers throwing bottles inside because they want to conceal from their family how much they drink, and I can only imagine that the pits are used to hide other inorganic waste where no one will look.