Guest blog by Andy Stoll, Social Entreprener, Media Producer and Around-The-World Traveler at NoBoundaries.org.
It was a dusty day in the early fall on a snarled, corrugated, dirt road. I was hanging onto the back of a rusty, 20-year old Honda motorcycle, as traffic whisked by on both sides, looking out either way across barren cracked flatlands, sparsely peppered by withering crops. I was about 5-hours southeast of Mumbai, India. The reason I was there: I was looking for a toilet.
The village I was about to visit faced catastrophic water shortages for 5-months each year. In this dry season, the villagers relied on small muddy streams, puddles and run off, as their only source for water (no municipal pipes anywhere to be found). One villager told me that during the dry season water became such a valued commodity, there were often cases of 'water theft.'
Over the past two years, with the help of Rotary Clubs from Mumbai and the US, the village built numerous concrete ponds and tanks to "harvest water." These troughs used a series of gutters, pipes and catchment devices to collect rain water during the monsoon season, which was then stored for use during the 6-month dry season (during which clean water was once totally unavailable).
Anyway, back to the toilets...
I was going to check out an innovative program that was helping villagers build family-owned toilets by providing 50% of the materials & cost and 50% of the labor, as long as the family provided the other 50% of the material & cost, 50% of the labor and 50% of the labor towards another family's toilet. This pay-it-forward mentality not only built toilets, it built a shared sense of ownership in each other's property and a built a stronger sense of community and shared destiny.
The project's organizers also found that this private ownership model had profound impacts on the village's sanitation and health for two reasons:
- Without toilets, villagers simply used the bushes and latrine-like-holes, often further contaminating the already-scarce water sources.
- The family-based ownership of each toilet, rather than a communally-owned village toilet, led to cleaner toilets that people were more willing to use---just as the toilet in your home is likely much cleaner and much more user-friendly than communal toilets at the public park.
The motorcycle came to a screeching halt in the village square as I dismounted with my camera in hand. I spent the next few hours visiting with villagers, snapping photos and learning the politics of water scarcity. Quite proud of their newly abundant clean water, the villagers, particularly the kids, were more than willing to pose in photos with water faucets and catchment devices.
As is customary in so many poor villages of the world, I was quickly invited into home after home for tea and warm hospitality.
In one particular home, I felt comfortable enough to ask about the 'toilet program.'
"YES, we have a toilet," the mother beamed.
"May I take a photo of it?" I asked tentatively, after a short pause (imagine for just a second, what it would be like if a foreigner who didn't speak your language, dropped by your home unannounced and then asked to see your bathroom).
"Of course," she said, and led me out behind the house to a concrete latrine-looking building.
"Wait, wait' she said, " as I pulled out my camera.
My hope was to take a few photos of the toilets to compare the design to other toilet projects I'd visited elsewhere.
This is where things took a surprising twist.
She quickly hustled back into the house with her children in tow. After about 5-minutes of rustling from inside the hut, she emerged dressed in clean clothes and jewelry on.
I smiled back.
She then shuffled in front of the outhouse and motioned for me to take the photo.
I had not asked the family to be in the photo, nor even implied it. But what I understood at that moment was that she was proud of her toilet. I think it was pride built from the family's contribution, pride build from helping her neighbor build another toilet, pride that seemed to be passed from household to household.
After I took a few more photos, we stood next to the toilet chatting, her granddaughter in her arms. She told me about the building process and the effects of the toilets on families (the other villagers looked upon them with higher regard, the children got sick less and went to school more). Pleased with my excitement for the toilet, she then led me out the door and over to a neighbor's house (with a toilet I later learned she helped build). As we walked into the hut, she exclaimed with a little giggle of glee, "There's a foreigner here...He wants to see your toilet!"
I spent the afternoon photographing toilets and one family after another, without being asked, stood proudly in front of their toilets for the photos. Each photo reminded me of a picture I have of my younger brother in high school standing in front of his first car.
I left that village the following day with two new ways to see the world:
- The importance of pride and ownership in development solutions. Even the poorest people have just as much pride as you and I do. Most would prefer to earn what they get rather than just take a no-strings attached handout. Any solution that forgets this principal will likely fail, as pride and ownership in the 'free thing' wanes. So much of the worst damaged caused by so called 'development projects' are caused with the best of intentions.
- Everything begins with water. This particular village's first step was building (with the help of a partner in Rotary) a 'water harvesting' system to solve their water shortage problems. The water tanks led to improvements in sanitation and food growing. These improvements in sanitation and food allowed kids to have better health. Better health led them to more school. And I'd assume, in a simplified sense, going to school leads to more businesses and jobs, which leads to economic development, which leads to money, which leads to more water tanks, which leads to more toilets and so on. Health, hunger, poverty, education, economic development and community all begin with access to clean, healthy drinking water.
All photos provided courtesy of Andy Stoll. Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Andy Stoll is an American-based media producer and social entrepreneur.
From a young age, Andy wanted to 'change the world, but realized he better first get a sense of how it actually works. So, in 2006, with only a virgin passport, a backpack and a one-way ticket to China, Andy set out on what would become a 4-year trip around-the-world. The purpose was simple: see how people live in the world. Through experiences working, studying, teaching and volunteering in 40 countries, Andy set out to experience the world first-hand. Among other things, he lived the life of a maize farmer in a mud hut village in Zambia, worked in a dress factory in Bangkok for 60 US cents an hour, lived in a Buddhist Temple in Korea, explored the slums of India in search of street magicians and helped perform cataract surgeries for villagers on the remote islands of Fiji. You can read more stories from his travels at www.noboundaries.org, or find him on Twitter at @andystoll.