I volunteer for Toilet Twinning and Cord, and recently returned from a week in Burundi visiting some of the African water and sanitation projects we help fund.
My first hours in Africa were spent sitting in the back of a basic four-wheel-drive utility, driving firstly from Bujumbura airport through the city and then eastwards through Burundi until we reached the town of Rutana as night was falling.
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Our driver was Serge, a native Burundian and Country Director for Cord, which along with Tearfund is one of the partners behind Toilet Twinning. Serge had said very little over the few hours we were travelling through the bush. He had kept his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel and he had made good time. Burundi was still a place where it was important to reach the hotel compound before night.
But the next day we drove slowly on dirt tracks so rough I tried not to get sick from being thrown about in the back. There were less people living off these minor roads and the walls of the small houses had turned from crude mud bricks to just mud.
We passed a lone woman in a field. She was young and the colours and the pattern of her bright clean dress were the same design as her headscarf. She had put down her bundle and was waiting for us to pass. We were going slowly and as we moved up the steep track she couldn’t wait any longer and lifted her dress and crouched down. She watched suspiciously as we drove away. She was shy and alone and in pain and she was going to the loo in a field because she couldn’t hold it in and had nowhere else to go.
Later we visited water and sanitation schemes, including latrines of different designs, made by Burundians with component parts made by Burundians. I learned the basic economics. I sat out of the sun in a dim classroom made of rough mud bricks and listened to a lesson with a class of women students. I admired the mixture of laughter and seriousness that the young teacher created. The class would chant the word ‘yes’ as she taught, and it sounded beautiful in their Kurundi. And Serge whispered a translation for me.
What do you see in the picture? Yes, a man drinking from the stream. What else do you see? Yes, a cow pooing in the stream. Yes! The man will be sick. What else do you see? A woman collecting water. Yes! But who is she collecting the water for?
The young teacher waited, and then after a moment, the sound of a dozen women softly singing ‘yes’.
Yes, the water is for her children, she says quietly. They were learning, I guess just like you and I had to learn.
Poor health, the chance of violence, poverty. If you go to the toilet in the fields you are risking rape, snake bites, illness. If you are hurt or ill or fearful of going to the fields then you can’t walk for water or tend your crops, and you find it hard to help yourself.
There is little point just building a latrine. To make a difference, a tremendous difference as it turns out, then you have to work with a community; on water, sanitation and health education, and you have to stick around and see it through, like Tearfund and Cord. I was lucky enough to see it for myself.