19 November is World Toilet Day and we were extremely fortunate to be able to join in with the Ugandan national celebrations in Amuria District. As this was after seeing he shocking conditions at Amuria health centre, it proved to be another eye opening and pretty overwhelming day, both emotionally and physically draining.
First thing, we visited the District Local Government Office to meet the CEO and hear from the District Water Officer how Amuria District has become the most improved district in Uganda in terms of sanitation. Pit latrine coverage was 38% in 2011 and in just 3 years this has increased to around 75-80%. Amuria District has benefited from some money from the Global Sanitation Fund as well as support from WaterAid.
This impressive improvement in sanitation has mainly been achieved through the District Water Officer and WaterAid staff educating and encouraging villagers to build their own pit latrines. In some cases this has also been done through coercion by making those who don't build them them help others who are old or disabled. Apparently this forces them into building their own latrines when they return home.
Whilst positive, these generalised statistics of district averages mask the disparities between communities. Some harder to reach communities have only have 20% coverage of latrines whilst others have much more. Also, the quality of the latrines varies along with hygiene levels. WaterAid plan to produce a map of Uganda to highlight the pockets of poor latrine levels so they can see where to concentrate their efforts.
Our visit to Amuria primary school began with a lovely welcome song by the children and a speech by the headmaster. We were then taken on a tour of the latrines which would had been fine had there been more of them, and had they had hand washing facilities near by. With 850 children at the school and only a few blocks of latrines there are 53 children per toilet which can cause queues, and maintenance and cleaning issues.
I was surprised when we entered one of the classrooms that 114 children looked up at us, crammed along benches so tight I wondered how they'd got in there and how they'd ever get out, especially if there was a fire. I was very impressed that the one enthusiastic teacher was teaching English to 114 very attentive children, all of whose names she seemed to remember.
I really enjoyed chatting with the very bright 13 year old Martha, Mary and Keren and 12 year old Joan in the kids health club. Their role is to teach the younger kids about the importance of hygiene. I asked if they teach their parents at home too and they laughed and replied yes, they did. It was so refreshing to be able to discuss menstruation with girls of that age - I can't imagine being able to chat with girls that easily at home about issues like that.
Onto the Ugandan national World Toilet Day celebrations with over 1000 people, including 3 government ministers, also held at Amuria Primary School. A fun afternoon of really lovely poems, plays, singing and dancing, all about toilets and hygiene, by the children. I was so impressed with their confidence, intelligence and talent. We were also treated to an energetic performance of traditional dancing.
It was great to hear all the thank yous and 'you are most welcome's from various dignatories and local leaders. Although fascinating, the speeches went on 2 hours longer than planned (something we've come to expect in Uganda) which was rather tiring in the intense heat. The Minister for Health gave a very long but interesting speech, highlighting the links between sanitation and health. A big part of the Ugandan health budget is being spent on preventable sanitation related diseases. Water, sanitation and hygiene are essential in combating dysentery, typhoid, scabies, cholera, and dealing with HIV. Also solving education and inequality problems.
It was in this heat that I suddenly found myself dressed in a full plastic toilet costume in front of over 1000 people! Caroline from WaterAid UK and Barry, one of the other volunteers, gave some amazing speeches and I posed smiling dressed as a toilet to illustrate their points and provide some fun. Caroline had to explain what I was as I was dressed as a western style toilet and many of the people in the audience would only have seen a squat latrine style toilet. I was rather overwhelmed by the popularity of the toilet costume as I was surrounded by photographers from Ugandan TV, newspapers, other organisations and individuals. I guess that was my 15 minutes of fame!
The villages and schools in the Amuria district seem so peaceful and the people positive and relaxed, I have to keep reminding myself that the whole area was a battlefield in 2003 with many local people beaten and killed. They are very resilient people in so many ways and I really admire them for that.