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West Africa: Digging a hole is only a start

In West Africa, latrines are a first step, but people should demand more.

May 15, 2011|By Jessie Seiler

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I had heard all the stereotypes. Volunteers were a bunch of privileged white kids, I was told. Guitar-strumming, wide-eyed do-gooders who didn't understand cultural differences and spent their time building latrines they could never persuade anyone to use.

The image of an unprepared, inexperienced volunteer armed with nothing but good intentions is no longer accurate, if it ever was — at least not here in Senegal, West Africa, where I am serving in the Peace Corps as a preventative health educator.

Sure, I was a philosophy major in college. And yes, I was assigned to a village called Ndiago, home to 300 subsistence-level farmers and their wives and children in the middle of nowhere. I'll admit life here isn't much like life in Los Angeles. But volunteers receive excellent language, cultural and technical training, so when that big white Land Cruiser drives away and leaves us in our villages, alone with our piles of baggage, our water filters and our new "families," most of us do not dissolve into tears.

Still, I was nervous when, seven months into my service, the leaders of my community approached me to ask if we could start a latrine project. Wasn't this exactly what I had been teased about? More important, was I ready for such an ambitious project?

But the arguments for the project were convincing. Of the 26 family compounds in my village, each of which can house up to 20 or 30 people, only 11 had latrines. The unlucky families without them went into the bush when nature called. In a country like Senegal, where water-borne illnesses are a major threat and children can die of simple dehydration, defecating outdoors contributes to an erosion in the quality of life and can even lead to painful, preventable deaths. Here was my community coming to me and asking for a way to change that. Even with my dread of failure, my lingering fear that I would be implementing a program no one would make use of after I had left the village, how could I say no?

During the hottest part of the day, when by all rights we should have been napping under the sparse shade trees, the village gathered. I had invited the patriarchs of every compound, the village health workers and the most important women in the community. My host-sister, Fama, who at the time was 3, came too — though when she wanted to sit in her customary spot on my lap and listen to the talk, she was shooed away by her elders.

Nervously, with help from the village health workers, I explained my proposition: The people of Ndiago would bring latrines to themselves. Two men from the village would be in charge of hiring masons and bringing the cement and other materials to the village. Two women would be selected to educate everyone on how to use and maintain their latrines and on the importance of washing their hands with soap and water. I would be involved, but only to deal with the grant money and keep track of the receipts.

The proposal was immediately accepted, and the villagers selected the two men and women who were to hold positions of responsibility. From there, the project went so smoothly that even to this day, a year later, I have trouble believing it.

All 15 compounds without latrines were able to finish the work before the rainy season. That's lucky for us, because everyone is busy in the fields during the rains, and anyway, it's when diseases like giardiasis, amoebiasis, dysentery and sometimes even cholera become major threats. The women who were elected to serve as health educators turned out to be helpful in teaching about oral rehydration therapy as well. The project saved lives, and the people of Ndiago did it for themselves and by themselves.

I was proud of how things had gone. Then I started thinking about it more. If there were ever an outbreak of amoebiasis in my hometown of Los Angeles, outraged parents would write letters to members of Congress, even as their children made quick recoveries. But in this century when cutting-edge medical technology is being used to develop remedies for hair loss, my community here in Senegal — people I think of as family — ask for nothing more than simple latrines for themselves and their children. Not a source of safe, clean drinking water. Not a real waste management system. Not more consistent access to oral rehydration therapy and the cheap medications that treat diarrheal diseases. Just holes in the ground.

My host-sister Fama is 4 now, almost 5. She never walks anywhere — she skips and hops and leaps and runs and dances wherever she wants to go. She's talkative and friendly and happy. I love her, yet there is nothing I can do to ensure that she will receive good-quality healthcare and a good education. I can't prevent her from being forced into an early marriage. She will probably have her first child at the age of 17 or 18. She will probably lose some of her children to preventable, treatable diseases.

Maybe this latrine project in my village will prove to have been a small step in the right direction. And maybe I should be happy with that. But I want the people of this village to want more. If in 10 or 20 years the people of Ndiago and Senegal and the rest of the developing world are still asking for latrines instead of demanding access to health and sanitation facilities, to better schooling for their children and more accountability from their leaders, then my project and thousands of others all across the world were failures. Fama is not one special, entitled child in a million, she's one of millions. Each one of them is worth more than what a latrine project can give them. So what do we do now?

Jessie Seiler, a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, blogs at

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