shitty in pink: lady aid worker conquers night time latrine visits

by caitlin meredith

My feet but NOT my pink Crocs!!! Borrowed from a friend!

I have one key piece of advice for female aid workers on their way to Africa: once you get there, get a potty. This might even be more important than my earlier advice about underwear. Displaying your undies  in full view of your boss only happens once a week – the potty issue comes up every night.

Nighttime elimination first became an issue when I worked in Darfur. We had two pretty nice latrines in my compound– they were topped off with porcelain squat plates and most of the rat-sized cockroaches skittered away after you flashed the light a couple times. The problem wasn’t the latrines, it was the guards. The compound guards – despite stern warnings and directives from their bosses –  slept most of the night, as do most night guards everywhere, I suspect. We didn’t complain about that too much because the one guard who didn’t sleep all night spent his time chanting passages from the Koran, rendering sleep all but impossible for everyone with a bedroom on the West side of the house. Give me armed robbery and/or kidnapping over systematic sleep deprivation any day, especially when I’m working in the field.

When I would wake up in the middle of the night with a full bladder I would untangle myself from the mosquito net, thrash around for my headlamp and slip my feet around for my flip flops. I’d make it to the latrine door, blindly shine my light like a disco ball to rustle the roaches, slamming the sticky door behind me to maximize their self-banishment. I’d do my business, pour the water from the bucket to flush, and elbow jolt the door back open. And then I would scream at the top of my lungs.

Outside the latrine door would inevitably be one of guards, awakened by my latrine door slam, in a tactical crouch, shining his flashlight in my face. My scream would then trigger his scream. At which point both of our adrenalin skyrocketed and most of the other compound inhabitants would emerge from the other closed doors, frying pans in hand. This happened three nights in a row. Three nights where one trip to pee turned into a sleepless night waiting for my heart to stop beating through my chest.

On the fourth night I went first to the guards to wake them up so that I could tell them it was just me going to the latrine, no reason to get up. But of course they spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic so this was no simple conversation. I spent 20 minutes trying out my seven Arabic words, then pantomiming myself going to the latrine – all but the final act. This stirred up so much confusion and alertness on both of our parts that none of us could get back to sleep.

There was only one solution: a potty. I had noticed a seldom-used plastic juice pitcher on a high shelf in the kitchen. Advantage: it had a lid. Disadvantage: could be mistaken for a beverage dispenser.  I put a big label on it: Private Property. I wasn’t planning on any public displays but didn’t want to get blamed for a lapse in hygiene.

I won’t go into detail but I can share that it was a perfect solution. Did the job and no one ever knew. I thought that it was a Darfur-specific workaround. I was wrong.

My next assignment was in Congo. The living quarters’ layout was much better – the guards were on the other side of the property so weren’t bothered by our comings and goings in the night. But the night latrine comfortability index soon plunged into the negative on my second night. During dinner, a Canadian nurse surprised a very, very long snake chilling out in the latrine.  The next morning I raided the logistics warehouse to find my new potty. I was tempted to use it exclusively – the difference between running into that snake with my pants around my ankles at night versus the day was negligible in terms of risk acceptability – but I settled on stomping around a lot and whistling to alert the snake of my arrival while the sun was still out.

In the ensuing eight years of my aid work experiences, finding a potty became my day one ritual. I haven’t gone so far as to bring my own in my duffel bag, but I’m now familiar with most of the plastic vessels available in East, Central and Southern African markets, as well as most humanitarian aid organizations’ supply closets. I could give a presentation on the pros and cons of each. For instance, avoid the clear plastic ones. Discrete transfer is crucial to successful plastic potty practice. People are usually grossed out until they realize what a fantastic idea it is and get their own (mainly women.)  I think my favorite remains the Darfur pitcher.  Me, humanitarian aid work in far flung deserts and jungles and plastic potties: a winning combination. Until now.

South Sudan is famous for many things: political instability, war, heat, snakes and scorpions. Every one I’ve ever known that’s worked in South Sudan brings up the snakes and scorpions  – their big size, their frequent sightings, their  lethal bites. There was never any question – South Sudan is a potty mission. Unfortunately, it’s also an emergency mission where all tents are shared. My tentmate is a Kenyan midwife. Of all types of professions midwife seems like it would be the most potty-friendly, but I still haven’t been able to broach the subject. Plastic potty is not a spectator sport. So I had to come up with another solution.

After one night of meticulously inspecting each stone on the path between my tent and the latrine in the flickering light of my headlamp I decided it just wasn’t a realistic nightly ritual. People told me wild dogs snuck into the compound at night to chomp through our garbage. I couldn’t simultaneously keep my eyes to the ground and trace the confines of the enclosure. That’s when the fluid curfew started. No drinking past 7:30pm. Period. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. The water here is so gross that it all has to be highly chlorinated. Everything from the rice to your morning cup of tea tastes like a swimming pool. Since there’s rarely soda or beer, limiting fluid intake in the evenings is actually a relief.

So far it’s worked very well. Too well, actually. The other morning I realized that it was 10 o’clock in the morning and I hadn’t been to the latrine yet. Adjustments have been made.