Ubuntu at a Latrine: Clean Version

Note: I am fully comfortable discussing bodily functions (my first taste of international service was building water systems and latrines in Latin America), but I respect that not everyone is. If anyone wants the dirty details (pun intended), contact me in person.

My selection of 4 pit latrines. The following incident took place on April 4, 2015 in the latrine on the far right.

My selection of 4 pit latrines. The following incident took place on April 4, 2015 in the latrine on the far right.

Minus cutting my finger on a pitcher, face planting in front of my host family’s house in the Bush, and an angry suspension file unleashing its furry on my thumb, my time in South Africa was for the most part accident free until I dropped her Blackberry in a pit latrine, and bonded with my three new host sisters.

I currently reside in a compound of 5ish houses (I am still figuring out the exact number), at the very last room. I share the house with my host sister, her infant, and the Response Volunteer who leaves in June. While we have electricity (with the exception of lowsheading), we do not have plumbing or a ceiling. Our plumbing (it may seem gross but I clean it and no night time encounter with a snake is worth it) I have a roof, but the exposed rafters create an ecosystem for wasps.
That particular afternoon I was in an off mood. The response volunteer’s sister was visiting so I was alone for my first weekend at site and had my first encounter with street harassment. Nothing happened, the man who followed me for 10 minutes was completely drunk and not a threat, but it still added to the weird mood. I came back and started to type on my laptop when I hear the loud buzz of a wasp…over my bed. That was my threshold and I ran outside to grab the can of Raid (one of South Africa’s main insecticides).

An epic battle with two wasps ensued and ended with a wasp carcass in my bucket. Wasps can still sting when they are dead and in the midst of my fury I stormed off to the selection of latrines…and completely forgot to that I had my Blackberry in the other hand. As you may have guessed I dumped the wasp and accidentally knocked the phone down, in slow motion with me screaming “Noooo” to the amusement of my host family.

In a panic I asked my host family if we could get into the latrine, and my host Gogo thought I was crazy (which is correct but beside the point). They said it was not possible to get into the latrine and I responded “ I don’t know what to tell you but somehow the phone needs to get out”. It was an expensive phone and also even if the phone did not work, having a cellphone battery leach into soil was not a great environmental situation.

I sat on my stoop to regroup for 15 minutes to regroup and my host sisters came and said “Come Zama we have a plan to get the phone out.” They had a bucket and a big stick ready. I grabbed my headlamp and walked back to the latrine. Holding my breath I put my head into the latrine, but it was too dark for my fancy American headlamp to work. We tried for a 10 minutes, and then a Drakensburg downpour started. It is never a good idea to be under a tin roof during a thunderstorm so we postponed the search, and I had an emotional meltdown in my room.

30 minutes later the storm stopped. I put on my rubber proof shoes and ventured back into the latrine with my host sisters. 15 minutes later, my light still was not bright enough so we sent my 8 year old nephew to find a torch (flashlight). Our neighbors generously lent their torch and less than a minute after trying the new torch, we found the phone on the side of the latrine. I tried to maneuver the phone towards the center with two sticks with little success. I demoted myself to torch duty, and one of my host sisters took the sticks and got the phone to the center on the first try.

Then we tried to place a bucket in the latrine, but realized the bucket was too wide. As the American wracked her brain for how to solve the new problem, one of the host sisters found a netted onion bag, but it would not stay on the stick. Another host sister found a plastic juice bottle and promptly began cutting the container. They got the makeshift “bucket” into the latrine. I held the torch as my host sister gingerly pulled up the phone from the latrine, dropped it once, and then successfully placed in the bucket.

As the miraculously lit-up phone emerged, I grabbed it with my Ziploc-covered hand (the one bit of innovation I contributed) . With their shocked faces my host family family watched as I walked our rural trashcan (aka burn site for rubbish) to address the next issue: How to clean the phone that was covered in …well things you would expect to find in an active pit latrine (Hey I said I would keep it clean). At this point I wanted to throw it in a bucket of water, but my host sisters rightfully convinced me that was not a wise idea. One of the host sisters brought a roll of toilet paper but it was not removing the waste. A hilarious exchange followed:

Zama (my Zulu name): Do we have any wipes?

Host sister (who is holding her 6 month son): Zama are you asking if we have any wipes for babies’ bum?

Zama: Yebo.
Host sister (answers instantly while giving a bemused glance to my cousin who has a baby daughter): Of course we do! Sends 8 year old son to get the wipes.

I used up the entire pack of bum wipes and we were still trying to get to get into tiny crevasses. The same sister who thought of the juice bottle brought up the idea of toothpicks and ran to fetch them. When she came back, she decided to get her hairdryer ready for the next part of our operation. We walked into the storage house and layer the dried but stinky phone out on the ironing board. I disassembled the phone and started to blow dry the pieces. The hairdryer stopped three times in the process but it lodged the liquid (and other organisms) out. Finally it was time to do my American-go-to tactic (and the one my cohort suggested repeatedly) and place it overnight in rice.

I wish that I could say that my phone was fixed after all the effort from my host family. Unfortunately, the risk of electrocution was too great for it to be used. I had to purchase a used phone from an Indian shop in my shopping town However not all was lost. We were able to salvage my memory card and SIM card (it is a process to register phone numbers in South Africa at the moment). More importantly I bonded with my host sisters and learned ubuntu first hand.

Ubuntu is a hard word to translate into English, but it is an Nguni word (the branch of language isiZulu belongs to) that basically means, “I am because you are”. It is the rationale behind South African hospitality and thrives in the community oriented cultures of Kwa-Zulu Natal. When I was blow drying my phone and pulled out the SIM card, my host sister was relieved. She told me that she knew what it was like to lose a phone. While doing laundry her phone slipped out of her pocket and into a bucket. She did not discover the issue until she finished. Not even a grain bath could save the phone (y’all rice is no match for African environments’ toll on electronics). Yet she remembered how she felt when she lost the phone and was willing to help me get the phone out, despite how disgusting it is to deal with a pit latrine.

In the end, it was not the American with flashy electronics (and who caused the problem in the first place) but it was the three South African women who came up with the practical solutions. They got the phone out, if it was just me it would still be stuck there. My cohort had a great laugh and used a lot of excrement related puns at my expense (but I gave them permission). I thanked my host sisters with a chocolate avocado cake with yellow frosting, because I have a sick sense of humor. I still owe my roommate a bag of rice.

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