“Sometimes you go there [the open area used as a public toilet] and people have already defecated all over the place. But you do not have a choice, you just have to drop yours there as well, this is not good for our health.” That is how 25-year old student Immanuel Veiko, a resident of Keetmanshoop, responded to eight new public toilets that were finally opened to the public in his constituency a fortnight ago.
For many, the opening of a public toilet can be an odd sort of news, news that is really out of place. Perhaps one would wonder why that should even feature as a news item. This is not so for the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands across Namibia, who’s human dignity takes a back seat whenever the need to answer the call of nature arrives.
The year 2017 is the year government has set as the deadline to double the number of Namibian households with access to sanitation. Statistically the quest is to improve sanitation from the current 34 percent to 70 percent of the pupation, by year-end. And it is not going to be an easy task for government. Take the Ileni settlement for instance. The settlement has about 400 households and just received eight toilets. The Keetmanshoop Rural constituency has a population of 7,100 people and 1,800 households according to the last census. As of last year the constituency has only received ablution facilities sufficient to care for 28 households, out of the 1,800 in the constituency.
This leaves many residents without proper toilets, with the open veld the only option for them.
Another example is the Oshikoto region, where there are 11 constituencies. The regional council last year undertook to construct pit latrines in the entire 11 constituency. Yet, due to budget constraints the regional council only managed to build 17 toilets each, at all 11 constituencies. The 11 constituencies have 179,100 people and 37,400 households.
Nevertheless government is doing all it can to achieve its objective to improve access to sanitation. As the Keetmanshoop Urban constituency councillor Hilmar Nikanor noted during the handover of eight toilets two weeks ago, “government cannot provide services to all people at once.”
So although many remain without access to proper ablution facilities, residents such as Veiko are happy that they will no longer have to walk long distances to the nearest bushes in order to answer to the call of nature.
Veiko, a student at the Namibian Institute of Mining and Technology, said sometimes it got a little embarrassing to walk to the bushes, especially during the day, as the little bushes available are not good cover and this meant people passing by could see him.
“During the day you cannot really use the bushes as people are likely to see you, so you have to train yourself to hold on until the sun goes down for you to do your business,” he explained, adding – with a smile on his face: “I am now able to do my business comfortably.”
The effects of access to sanitation though affect women more. And 37-year old Estell Kohima knows too well of such negative effects. Kohima, one of the community members who also received ablution facilities recently, noted using the bush has been especially risky for females as they are more likely to pick up germs than men, which can cause sicknesses.
Then there is the element of safety. “It has always been a risk to cross the road and go to the bush, you never know what might happen, especially to our young girls, what if they are raped out there,” she stated.
//Kharas Regional Director in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Bartholomeus Muntenda spoke of how sanitation problems at Ileni are a health threat.
He said a lack of water for residents to keep themselves clean also contributes to the unhygienic conditions of people in informal settlement, saying when people do not wash regularly it attracts flies which are likely to cause sicknesses.
“Just imagine a mother does not wash properly, and this attracts flies from the open veld where there are faeces and this causes infection to the baby being breastfed,” he said.
“Sanitation is very serious and should be a priority, last year we almost had an outbreak of diarrhoea, we were lucky we could contain it,” he said.
Muntenda then went on to explain, passionately, how the lack of ablution facilities is a major problem, with potential to cause sicknesses amongst the residents, when they are exposed to faeces that are just in the open, and contamination from flies that feed on the stools.
He stressed the need to keep the environment clean at all times, saying failure to do so is a health risk as it attract flies and germs that can cause different diseases, especially diarrhoea.
Only this week the national slaughter and meat-packaging corporation, Meatco, which exports to Europe, issued a cautionary notice that it is concerned about the cases of measles detected during slaughter operations in its abattoirs in the country.
Since operations began in January, there has been an average of seven animals diagnosed with measles every week, said Meatco’s corporate communication officer, Jethro Kwenani.
“Farmers should try to avoid faecal contamination of cattle feed and grazing areas by any means necessary, meaning that farm workers and visitors must practise good hygiene by using toilets and not making use of the bush. Should a camp or pasture be known to be infected with human waste, it is best to not allow animals to graze there,” Kwenani says.
According to the Namibia Sanitation and Hygiene Program, nearly 1.3 million of Namibia’s population of just over 2 million do not have access to proper toilet facilities, including 84 percent of all people living in rural areas. Diarrhoea is the second highest cause of paediatric admissions in Namibia and is responsible for more than 30 percent of deaths in children under the age of five.
It has also been noted that open defecation has consequent negative effects on the public and particularly children’s health. According to the Namibia Demographic and Health Survey report of 2013, a total of 24 percent of Namibian children under the age of five have stunted growth and this negatively affects their cognitive development.
The challenge for many constituencies, regional councils, and municipalities is the construction of toilet facilities and proper sewerage systems. Notably many municipalities are trying to bring such services closer to the people, by building public toilets. The other challenge is that communities do not take ownership of the infrastructures and ablution facilities are often vandalised, and become really unhygienic to use. This prompts the communities to revert back to the bushes and open veld.
This is true for the residents of Kaniita informal settlement in the town of Omuthiya, where people hardly use the ablution facilities installed because of the smell and thus prefer the bush or open area. The ablution uses the pit latrine system which the community says was poorly constructed with the pit either too shallow and the ventilation not good enough. – Matheus Hamutenya in Keemanshoop and Obrien Simasiku in Omuthiya contributed to this story.