A community’s pitched battle to stamp out open defecation

What you need to know:

  • According to the Homa Bay Department of Health, only three sub-counties — Rangwe, Homa Bay and Rachuonyo South — have been declared as open defecation free zones.
  • Open defecation is common in rural communities where residents relieve themselves in bushes, sugarcane plantations, rivers and the lakes.
     

s Sarah Adhiambo carefully cleans her latrine with water and soap before refilling a water can used for handwashing in front of the washroom.
The two latrines serve her and her children, something she says was never possible a year ago.
For several years, Ms Adhiambo and her family would be forced to make long queues to answer the call of nature. Ms Adhiambo shared four latrines with the rest of her extended family, which included seven households in Arujo, Homa Bay County.
“The situation would be worse in the morning when everyone would be rushing to the latrine and you have to be patient waiting for your turn,” she says. She explains that, with each household composed of at least seven children, sharing the facility was a great challenge with the situation made worse during school holidays.
But Ms Adhiambo is not the only one who faced the challenge, thanks to the poor cotton soil in the county that has seen a number of latrines collapse.
As a result, most of the residents resort to sharing the limited facilities or open defecation, which, according to health experts, exposes them to disease outbreaks. 
According to the Homa Bay Department of Health, only three sub-counties — Rangwe, Homa Bay and Rachuonyo South — have been declared as open defecation free zones.
The other six — Ndhiwa, Rachuonyo East, Suba, Mbita, Rachuonyo North and Suba Central — are still facing the sanitation challenge. The county’s Public Health and Sanitation Officer, Mr James Kabaka, says 16 per cent of Homa Bay population still defecates in the open. This has, in turn, raised public health concerns over faecal contamination of the environment and poor hygiene.
Open defecation is common in rural communities where residents relieve themselves in bushes, sugarcane plantations, rivers and the lakes.
Ms Alice Adhiambo, a resident of Ndiwa Sub-county says that, after building two latrines which ended up collapsing during the rainy season, the family has now resorted to using bushes. During the rainy season, the faecal matter ends up washed downstream and into the lake, exposing residents to waterborne diseases.
“With the periodic water shortages in the area, our biggest fears are getting diseases from the contaminated water,” she says. County Sanitation Coordinator Paul Agwanda says poor soil structure has made some families lose their latrines when they collapse after a few months of usage.
Homa Bay has black cotton soil, which requires construction workers to dig very deep when putting up the foundation of a building. Mr Agwanda says it is difficult to keep track of all the latrines in villages and schools, especially during the rainy seasons.
 “Records may indicate that an area has a particular number of latrines but, in reality, they are not there. We discovered that latrines constructed in a skewed manner collapse faster because of the poor soil structure,” he says. Informal settlements bear the brunt of  this conundrum. In Shauri Yako, most of the latrines are made from iron sheets and are not stable because of the poor soil structure.
Data from the Ministry of Health shows that Homa Bay is among 15 counties, including Baringo, Garissa, Isiolo, Turkana, Samburu and Narok, where open defecation is a major public health concern.
In an effort to manage the menace, the county government implemented a community-led total sanitation programme, an approach used mainly in developing countries to improve sanitation and hygiene practices in a community. It involved the construction of pit latrines in the areas without a single facility and educating members of the community on how and why they should use it.
 The approach tries to achieve behaviour change mainly in rural communities, leading to spontaneous and long-term abandonment of open defecation practices.
But the structures were not stable and drove communities back to open defecation when their latrines crumbled. In 2020, the county government partnered with Financial Inclusion Improved Sanitation and Health (Finish Mondial), a non-government organisation, to build long-lasting latrines.
The modern latrines, which are made to withstand the poor soil structure, are made by artisans trained by experts from Finish Mondial.
“We first trained community health volunteers and artisans to implement the project. We also have demonstration sites, which interested residents can look at,” says Victor Kidiga, Finish Modula technical assistant.
When putting up the latrines, the normal toilet structure is first built and two leach pits dug behind it.
“A junction box is then constructed at the back of the toilet to allow the use of one leach pit at a time as the box controls where waste is directed,”Mr Kidiga says. 
When one pit is filled up, an artisan channels waste to the other one at the junction box. The waste is then left to dry up and used as manure.
The county has seen over 2,000 new leach pit toilets constructed, with 134 artisans trained to build them, 32 individuals trained to market the concept and 50 public health officers assigned to promote the idea. 
Experts are now calling for adoption of such innovations in addressing hygiene and sanitation challenges. Mr Agwanda says that, because some families have latrines within their homes, the structures are not recommended.
“Sanitation is not a one man’s role. Lack of proper sanitation is a ticking time bomb and everyone is at risk if a group of people do not use the facilities,” he says.
 

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