What a toilet can do in a Kenyan informal settlement

By Edwin Simiyu

2.5 billion People worldwide (one in three people in the world) do not have access to a toilet or sustainable sanitation. The United Nations designated November 19, 2013 as the first world toilet day. Sanitation coverage in Mathare Valley is very poor due to few public latrine facilities, a sewerage system which is in disrepair, basically non-existent public waste management system and security issues for women utilizing latrines. Latrines vary greatly in type, quality, and concentration across the valley. Overall latrine accessibility based on both household proximity to latrines and users per latrine block is poor across the valley.

According to the Muungano enumerations carried out in the year 2011, only 29% of households live within 30 meters of public latrine blocks. This means that more people have to travel long distances to access latrines. This becomes especially important for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence when accessing latrines, especially at night. The latrine blocks that do exist are strained by a high frequency of use. On average, a functional latrine block with public access is shared by 276 households (1104 people). Therefore to many of the Mathare residents who can’t have access to safe, clean and private toilets and sanitation, it is more than an inconvenience, it can be a matter of life or death.

Figure 1: A photo of the demolished toilet block as taken on February 25, 2014

Figure 1: A photo of the demolished toilet block as taken on February 25, 2014

On February 24, 2014 deep in the night when a group of youths are hired to bring down a toilet block in Mathare’s Bondeni village. This block serves mainly people around Bondeni and 3C villages. It is the main toilet block in between Mau Mau road and Juja road and hence convenient especially to people who leave deep in the settlement away from the access roads. There is a tendency of most toilet blocks being built along the major roads and hence most people staying in the deeper areas of the settlement having to walk long distances to access the toilets. This toilet block was therefore a relief to many people as they could be able to access it without having to walk for long distances. Talking to the residents, there are two possible reasons for this demolition:

a)      A possible scheme to grab the land on which the toilet is located

b)      A corruption syndicate involving the local authorities which intends to dislodge from business the management of the toilet and create a new business opportunity for a toilet block. A way of creating business for someone else is by destabilizing the existing situation.

On February 25, 2014 a team from Muungano wa Wanavijiji and the support organization (Muungano Support Trust) proceeded to the Mathare settlements to oversee the ongoing Food Safety mapping exercise by the Mathare residents. As the team was preparing the mapping materials, a group of rowdy youths barricaded the roads just next to where we were preparing the materials. Vehicles from both sides (Dandora and Town) could not be able to pass through. Most people had to walk so as to get to their destinations or connect to Thika road to pick a vehicle to town or Dandora or the Eastland areas. The team was lucky that they got on the ground before the fracas became serious. Apparently this was not the first instance for the day, at around 5 a.m. a similar incidence had occurred and the police succeeded in dispersing the youths.  This time around it was not different either. The police arrived about 20 minutes later and cleared the roads and restore normalcy on the road.

Having been delayed to begin the transect walk across the villages, the team proceeded into two, one team going to 3C and another proceeding to 3B/2B. I joined the team that went to 3C and as we began the process, a group of youths approached us and wanted to know what we were doing and why we were carrying the satellite images. Some claimed we have a photograph of the demolished toilet. With the help of the local residents who were assisting us with the mapping process, the youths were assisted to understand the ongoing food safety mapping. They no longer had any business with us and they dispersed to their strategic places as they kept on warning that they are not done yet with those who demolished the toilet block. We proceeded with the transect walk first finishing the Juja road side for both paper mapping and mobile app mapping. Once we had reached the boundary between 3C and Mashimoni No.10, we continued with the boundary road continuing all the way to the river before we embarked on the roads within the village. See figure 2.

Figure 2: Mathare Village 3C boundaries as highlighted in green

Figure 2: Mathare Village 3C boundaries as highlighted in green

As we continued with our transect walk towards the new road connecting Mau Mau road to Juja road, we suddenly started hearing gunshots on regular time intervals. First we thought it was the sound of teargas canisters fired. The intensity of the shots increased and the sound got closer and closer. It was during this moment that it dawned on us that the police were involved in a cat and mouse game with the youths and were forced to use live bullets which were shot in air to scare away the youths. As we were still there, we saw a group of youths running towards our direction.

We were forced to seek refuge in the nearby houses within the shortest time possible. Before long the police begun fishing out the purported chaos masters from hiding as they continued shooting and shouting “wapi hao vijana” (translated where are those youths). Baba Mark (a renowned elder in Mathare) who was part of our team had remained outside the house as we were hiding and being elderly had an advantage of talking with the police. The police were ready to use necessary force to crack down on the youths. It was the first experience of being in the midst of gunshots.

The residents there say it is not the first instance, and they are almost used to the scenes we were experiencing on this particular day. After about 10 minutes, we came out of our hiding places and took a head count to ensure all our members were with us. Fortunately we were all safe and sound we proceeded to the meeting place having considered the level of insecurity already created in our working environment. As we proceeded towards the meeting place, we passed by the Olympic petrol station just on the boundary between 3C and 3A. Here we noticed that more police reinforcement had arrived and ready to give back up to their colleagues who were handling the security issue.

The team was forced to call in early as the situation was growing more and more intense. Most businesses had closed including the food vendors as such situations create a perfect environment for looting. We also had to think about the security of the phones which were being used for mapping. As we were winding up, there was a commotion around the Olympic petrol station. From the eye witness account, a police officer was trying to shoot in air and accidentally shot one of his colleague. The police were trying to take care of their wounded colleague. It was evident that the situation was getting uglier as time went by and it all started by demolition of a toilet block. We left Mathare a few minutes before 4 p.m. and there was growing tension that the actual battle between the police and the youths is yet to take place. From the Mathare survey, 2011 carried out by Muungano Support Trust, University of Nairobi and University of California, Berkeley, at least 77% of residents in 3C and 69% of residents in 3A uses public toilet. The demolition of the toilet block therefore affected many people and hence the reactions being witnessed by the community members.

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