Friday, March 9, 2007

The Worst Toilet(s) I Ever Saw

March 8, 2007

Back in Kumasi now, but I went to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for a weeklong film festival, and let me just saw that preventative Immodium drops are a good idea for prolonged overland travel in West Africa, whether you’ve got the runs or not.

There are no photos of my journey to Burkina, Trish and I having decided that it was more important for her to keep the camera in Kumasi to get photos of mentally ill people chained to the floor at a faith healing camp (see that story at, click on foreign correspondence and find her name). So I have only the description of memory to relay my discovery of the worst excuses for toilets I’ve ever seen, or smelt, in my life.

It was in Bolgatanga. I had already bought a return ticket for a tro-tro heading south, and thought I’d pee before climbing aboard. Did a quick recon, couldn’t find an alleyway private enough for my delicate Western sensibilities, so I asked a man at the bus depot where the toilet was and he pointed me down the street. A couple of teenage girls offered to guide me, assuring that it wasn’t far. They led the way past a smouldering trash heap being picked over by goats, past a swine wallowing in a muck puddle, to a young man seated at a roughhewn table beside a concrete hovel. He was holding a rag across his nose. I paid 200 cedis, and he tore a page out of an old phone book and handed it to me. I didn’t take it though, said no thanks, and the girls’ eyes went wide, until one of them said, “You have paper?” “Yes,” I said. They seemed relieved. I walked up to the hovel and through the doorway that was marked “Male” with white paint.

Okay. So our Western notion of a toilet is a tad luxurious, compared to most of the rest of the world. A simple hole in the floor, over which one squats, is very common technology, and not just in Africa. But what I saw and smelled in that room was enough to drive a man to religion.

I tried not to step in the stream that came running out of the hut. Inside, I was alone. There were several stalls, separated only by short concrete walls. Each stall had a couple of bricks for the feet on either side of a small pit that was shallow enough to be superfluous. There were lumps everywhere, filling the holes to an uncomfortable height, over which one would not want to squat, for fear of contact. They were strewn all about the holes as well, even on the brick footstools. I must digress, but not without mentioning that the West African diet must be as varied and unpredictable as any on the planet.

I deemed the first stall unacceptable, but the second was no better, and the stench was overwhelming, so I looked no further, stayed on the path, unzipped and let fly in the general direction of the pile that filled the hole. I tried not to notice the splash radius, and I had a spiritual moment of thankfulness that my purpose was only liquid, not solid, and that I was wearing pants.

I got out of there as fast as I could. “All done,” I said cheerfully when I emerged. The girls gaped at me in amazement; their jaws dropped open, they could not believe how fast I’d been. We started walking back and they wanted to know if I was okay. “I only had to do number one,” I said, which made no sense to them. So I explained: I only had to urinate. “Ohhh,” the one girl said. “I thought you had to make feces.” No, I said, I’m too shy to do like the Ghanaians do and just urinate anywhere, with people watching, and I wanted some privacy. I explained the difference between number one and number two. “What is number three?” There is no number three. I told them to share this information with their friends. Just doing my cultural duty.

Late that night, several hundred kilometres down the road, I got off another tro-tro at a place called Kintampo, and walked to the back of a gas station where men were lined up to pee against the wall. I paid my 200 cedis — what for, I still wonder? — and stood in my second piss river of the day to relieve myself again. In the gloom, to my right, I noticed a man drop his trousers, squat, and stick his hand underneath as though readying to catch whatever came out.

Surely not. Surely there is a line drawn here somewhere. Surely it doesn’t make any sense, when a group of people are standing in a line, pissing and shitting, to catch your poo and find a better place to put it. I do not know, for I did not watch, but zipped up, turned and wove my way through a crowd of people, all post-toilette, who were scooping handfuls of water from a bucket and scouring their hands and sandaled feet. G.

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