On a sunny day in the remote Chienge district of Zambia, hundreds gathered for a celebration that was the first of its kind. There was singing, laughing and no shortage of dancing. The village chiefs and government officials came dressed in their finest clothes, while volunteers sported bright green T-shirts that read, “We use a toilet … do you?”
The daylong event celebrated a milestone in Zambia, where the practice of defecating in the open is all too common. In April, Chienge, in the northernmost province of Luapula, became the first district in Zambia to be declared free of open defecation by the government. According to UNICEF, it’s also the first district in southern Africa to fully abandon the practice. That means every household has at least one private latrine and a place to wash your hands.
“It means the community has decided they don’t accept [defecating] in the bush or outside,” says Philippa Crooks, a UNICEF volunteer from Australia, who helped run the campaign in the district of some 40 villages and 134,000 people.
An estimated 6.6 million people in Zambia alone don’t have a proper toilet, and 4.8 million people live without clean water, according to UNICEF. Residents often drink water from nearby rivers and lakes, which have been contaminated with feces. And because hand-washing isn’t a regular practice in every district, bacteria from human waste can end up in people’s food, spreading diarrhea and cholera. There, the two diseases are among the major causes of death in children under age 5.
Zambia wants to make the entire country “open-defecation-free” within the next five years. And Chienge is a role model. Since the initiative began more than a year ago, Crooks says, the district has not recorded a single case of cholera.
The residents are happy about using toilets, says Leonard Mukosha, national coordinator of the Community-Led Total Sanitation program in Zambia. He recalls what he heard from a boy about 12 years old.
“Before, he would go into the bush [to use the bathroom] with fear because he would think of snakes,” Mukosha says. “And during the rainy season, sometimes you go and suddenly it starts raining. Now, least, he’s able to go to the toilet [indoors] so there are no surprises there.”
Over the past year, Mukosha and other health workers have been working with village chiefs and “champions” — those selected as community role models — to teach villagers about the importance of using toilets and washing hands with soap.
The goal is to help the community realize that “open defecation is very risky and that it strips the dignity from people,” says Mukosha. “You show them how the feces left in bushes get back to them. You create a sense of disgust when they realize so much money is being wasted to treat diseases that are preventable.”
Both Mukosha and Crooks say that despite defecation being a taboo subject in the communities, the village chiefs and champions met little resistance. They say, it’s because the residents already have a tradition of keeping their villages and homes clean.
“Historically that’s how the people have been,” Mukosha says. “If you go to the district you’ll find that lots of the villages are clean, and what was just lacking was the presence of toilets. So we made clear to them that you cannot claim to be completely clean [and] then use the bushes as a toilet — that does not mean cleanliness.”
Those caught defecating in the open can face penalties in the form of community work — cleaning government offices or gathering crops for orphans and disadvantaged people. But Mukosha says the district has rarely had to use the penalties.
What the campaign doesn’t do is hand out toilets. The Zambian government used to just donate concrete slabs to villages, “and it never moved the country anywhere,” says Mukosha. “We only reached about 20 percent of the people, and everyone else was waiting for the material.”
Instead, the volunteers work with the villages to build pit latrines using locally available materials. The pit latrines are simple to construct: a hole in the ground for the actual latrine with a cleanable slab over it. Then poles and mud bricks for walls, straw for the roof and empty bottles and jugs for the hand-washing station.
“You can see that people have a lot of pride in their toilets, and they just keep them very, very clean,” Crooks tells Goats and Soda.
Mukosha says they plan to make at least five more districts open-defecation-free by the end of this year, as well as to provide better and more efficient toilets.
And part of the strategy is to celebrate the toilet era every year and set new goals as the people of Zambia climb what he calls the “sanitation ladder.”