Friday, June 19, 2009

The Toilet

June 19, 2009

Ok it’s not Wednesday, but at least I’m finally telling the story. I’ve been trying to help some friends of mine, people I worked with on my last trip, apply for some funding from the government. Writing the proposal is taking a lot of time, so that’s why I haven’t updated for a while.

Let me get to the toilet. Story, that is.

About two weeks ago now, we started working on the idea of building a toilet and well in the slums. For those of you who weren’t at my fundraiser, that was the original idea I had for what to do with the money I raised. So, we collaborated with a group of elders in the slums who had some experience with building. They were excited about the project.
When we went down to check out the place where they wanted to build – on the edge of the beach at the bottom of the slum – I was a bit shocked. There were piles of garbage, of course, not as high as you might expect, but I think they burn it now and then. And then the school that owned the next property had built a cement wall to block people from going into the bushes along the beach there. As a result, there was human refuse everywhere. I had to be really careful where I stepped. This is a bit disgusting: some people there have a toilet built for their house, which they pay rent for and lock. The rest have nowhere to go, so they go on the path, on the beach, near the piles of garbage. Or they go in a plastic bag and throw it on the garbage heap. It doesn’t smell very good. So we’re building a toilet there. Two toilets actually, and a shower room. The plan was also to build a well, so there is easy access to water there. But there have been some complications with that plan. I’ll get to that.

Okay, so after we decided to start the project, we had some logistical delays. We had to drop letters to the Area Chief (who is, by the way, a woman) and the mayor. We had to be careful, cause the land that the slums are on is owned by someone, and the people that live there are squatting illegally. One can’t build a permanent structure on the land without getting the attention of the owner. I have no idea who the owner is, but clearly they don’t have a big problem with people squatting there. We just had to be careful not to be too bold with our building plans. Plus, if we don’t own the structure, it could be demolished any time, so we had to make sure we didn’t invest too much, only to bring attention and possibly have it destroyed. Bobo told me about a time maybe ten or twelve years ago when the owner brought a couple bulldozers and flattened the entire property. Without warning. People were running for their lives, carrying what possessions they could manage to grab before they were flattened. The houses there are made of mud and stones mostly with palm roofs of metal roofing sheets. Easy to mow down I guess.
Bobo’s family made it out, in case you were curious, but they lost a lot. All their pictures and information about their grandmother, all their birth certificates and identification, their home… They had to split up and stay with friends. That’s when Bobo started living here with Jay.
I’m digressing. It’s just that I find stories like this fascinating. The way people live here, the things they have to go through…it’s unreal. I always ask Bobo questions incessantly till he gets annoyed and depressed. Anyway.
We decided to make the toilets first, making the structure with wood, stones and cement. And metal sheets for the roof. Long lasting, but not too elaborate. Then we had to get the money together and figure out exactly which materials we would need. Last Friday, Bobo and I went to the lumber yard and hardware store and bought everything from small tree trunks to cement to toilet basins and brought it all back here with a few handcarts. We got help with the handcarts, we didn’t push them ourselves. On Saturday they started work, digging out a big section of the sand and garbage, clearing a level area to start building. Then they started asking for money. I understand that those guys are struggling. Many of them have families to feed, etc, but I honestly thought they would build it just because they wanted it there. We had been collaborating on the project planning and I thought they would be happy that we bought the materials. It’s not like any of us are getting paid for this project. Bobo said they think we have a tap with money coming out. Something like a money tree I suppose. Actually, we’ve been fighting with them about money a lot. Every time we agree on a deal, they go back on it and ask for something else. We’ve had a bunch of yelling matches. It’s intensely frustrating. I want to help them, create job opportunities and all that, but they are taking advantage of us, because now that they’ve started, we’d be wasting a lot more if we stopped. None of us knew this was going to happen, so we didn’t know to prepare for it or how to deal with it. Yesterday we signed an official agreement with them, which they will have to honour.

The hardest thing about the whole ordeal is that I feel like they don’t appreciate the things we’re doing for them. I didn’t realize how much appreciation mattered to me. I didn’t think I was doing this sort of work for the recognition or whatever, but I’ve started questioning whether I would still want to do it if people didn’t appreciate it. Even if I knew it was good work, I would question it. I wouldn’t feel good about it. No such thing as a selfless act, I guess.
Other people appreciate it. Women thank us and bless us from their doorways when we walk up and down through the slums. That helps, of course.

On the upside, things are moving very quickly. The structure should be finished in the next few days. The idea was that we would have time to get the well finished before I left. But the toilets have cost more than we thought, and it looks like we won’t be able to build the well right now. It’s like this: we want to build a well with a good filter and a hand pump. There’s no electricity for an electrical pump and tap system. A good hand pump costs about $700. We have about that much left, but what about the other costs of making a well – like digging? What about the kids we’re sponsoring? What about the kids we want to sponsor, medical stuff, hiring someone to keep the toilets clean, getting some speakers in for the women there, etc, etc, etc. There are so many other things we want to do, so the well might have to wait. We could build a cheaper one, where you haul the bucket up yourself, but the water won’t be clean, it will be salty… I guess we just don’t want to go halfway with the well. It might have to wait till next time we have some money.

I have to get going, so I’m going to cut this short. Or long, I suppose. It’s not that short. I’m sure there will be more developments with the project soon, so I’ll keep you updated. As per usual.

Till next time!

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