While waiting for my connecting flight in the Dubai airport, I received my first toilet culture shock. I walked into the last stall of a standard-looking bathroom to experience my first encounter with a flushing, porcelain pit toilet-basically a small hole in the ground surrounded by a shallow basin. I took a picture to send to my aunt and laughed aloud as I awkwardly tried to squat and position myself over the hole. With subsequent trips to the bathroom, I realized that all of the other stalls housed seated toilets like those found throughout the US-just my luck.
Travelling through Ghana has introduced me to an array of different bathroom styles. While some homes have their own private bathrooms, many people have to frequent a public restroom for their needs. Public restrooms are usually distinguished by what the individual hopes to accomplish. For urinating, there are separate female and male urinals. Some female urinals consist of a sloping floor ending in a drain, and others require women to squat on ledges that border a drain. Most female urinals are communal spaces that lack individual stalls. For defecating, there are flushing, seated toilets; manually flushing, seated toilets; and pit latrines. Toilets are private spaces separated by stalls. Oftentimes, the user will pay a small fee for use of the toilet and for a section torn the local newspaper that serves as toilet paper. These strange toilets have become familiar through practice and exposure, but my biggest shock was yet to come.
In Kamega, there are NO toilets. Anywhere can become a toilet. During the rainy season, people hide in the fields surrounding the compound house as they do their business. Some adults bury their feces, digging shallow holes with a hoe. However, after the harvest, fields are razed to the ground, and people can see far and wide. During this dry season, privacy is hard to find, and people will head to the bush to find a clump of shrubs or trees that will serve as a shaded toilet spot. Just as toilets are rare, so is toilet paper, and materials from the natural world (rocks, leaves, corn cobs, sticks) serve its purpose. Every yard in the compound house has an area for bathing, and it doubles as a urinal. The unroofed area is sectioned off by walls with an open space for a door.
Some may be embarrassed by such frankness about matters so private. Readers, please forgive me. Why do I share this information with you? Learning how and where to go to the bathroom has shaped my experience in Ghana. Anxiety-inducing, disgusting, hilarious these moments reveal so much about the realities of daily life-not from the porcelain throne of up-scale hotels but from pit latrines tucked in street alleyways or from the free-range fields.
The next excerpt from my correspondence with home is not for the weak-hearted or the weak-stomached, but I feel the urge to share my own struggles with this…sorry.
Today, November 14th, has been an entirely off day. Since there are no toilets, we go to the fields to “toilet.” Now that the crops have been harvested, crop cover is gone and there is nothing to hide behind to do your business. My bowel movements are usually triggered by my morning binge of 1.5-2L of water to prevent dehydration. However, the urge to go is always sudden and leaves me little time to search for an appropriate place to poo. Today, unfortunately, I did not make it to my preferred spot, and I ended up squatting close to a path, very visible to the several people passing by (surprisingly one of the first times I was aware that people could see me taking a dump). Since it was morning, I was wearing a printed cloth around my waist, which is my form of pajamas in the village. Because I was trying to retain some decency, I let my cloth hang down farther than usual, but it dipped into my fresh pile of poop…so gross. My hands got messy while trying to balance on my legs, avoiding falling into my poop, cleaning my cloth and then wiping my ass. It was the worst.
Please note that it requires special strength and coordination to squat over pit latrines or even in the fields.