Ode to the Throne

As 2018 rolls to a close, our thoughts often turn to gratitude. Let us consider and give thanks to that unloved and unlovely item of porcelain, the toilet. We assume that it will always be there, clean and functioning and discreetly disposing of our excretions. This fundamentally important article is taken completely for granted until something goes wrong (usually very wrong) or we find ourselves without access to one in time of urgent need.

Like so many tamu now retired in Bali, I backpacked around Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 80s. This experience provided a very broad education in accepted hygiene practices in the developing world. I’ll never forget my disbelief, when asking for the toilet in a tiny hamlet in Malaysia, on being invited with a vague gesture to avail myself of the hinterland behind the guest house. It was my first intimation that not everyone had a nice porcelain throne. I was very naïve. Of course I was already aware that not all toilets were designed for sitting, but had never really considered the complete absence of sanitary facilities.

In fact open defecation, as it is now officially called, is still the only option for about 892 million people (2015 figure) or 12 percent of the global population. In Indonesia this number is about 30 million, considerably more than the population of Australia. A lot of this activity takes place on beaches, as I’m reliably informed by intrepid friends who visit the less-visited shorelines of the archipelago. Some are not so very distant. Think Amed, where a friend who rents a beachfront villa has to place her feet carefully as she makes her way along the beach on her early morning walk.

When I was planning a trip to India recently for four semi-septuagenarians, a younger friend urged me to take them across Rajasthan by train. I cast my memory back to the chaotic platforms and the very high steps up to the railway carriages. I reminded her that our quartet included a person with a spinal fusion, one with a replaced hip, one who habitually carried a walking stick and one with very short legs (me).

I described my memories of the loos on Indian trains a few decades ago, which required a fine sense of balance and considerable preparation and nerve.   Trouser legs were rolled high before entering the chamber. Taking position over the small hole in the floor that opened directly onto the railway track, one adjusted to the violent jarring of the train while hanging on tightly to the wall with one hand and managing trouser fastenings with the other, meanwhile holding the loo paper between the teeth. Many visitors had missed the hole altogether. Things may have changed; Indian train toilets may now be safe and clean. But we decided to hire a car instead, with a driver who would scout the loos in the petrol stations.

In some places human waste is recycled. Visiting Goa in 1990 I learned that pigs were an important part of the food chain. Back yards were fenced and each held an elevated structure that was in fact an outhouse reached by a short ladder. The family pig, which lived in the yard, would closely observe visits to this structure so it could position itself strategically beneath and consume the payload as it was delivered. And yes, pork was widely eaten in Goa, although not by me.

A few more stories like this, including many about the dangers of trekking through miles of human waste in Nepal, causes me to regard my own toilet with increasing affection.

The first flushable toilet was described in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an English courtier and godson of Queen Elizabeth. However it was almost 300 more years before the concept was perfected and marketed by a gentleman by the name of Thomas Crapper in 1880. Yes that really was his name, get over it. The design has not changed much since its invention, except for the cistern. This was originally a large tank mounted high on the wall behind the loo that was flushed with a chain; the water flooded down with an alarming roar. Gradually the cistern was contained behind the toilet itself and flushes became much less dramatic.

The Japanese have brought the loo to a fine art form. Visitors to Japan are often intimidated to find a range of buttons on or near the loo lettered with Japanese characters; there are no subtitles. If brave enough to experiment one discovers a warm jet of water aimed at one’s nether regions (adjustable for gender) followed by puffs of warm air to dry said region, ending with your choice of flush volume. Refinements to this throne of thrones include a lid that opens automatically when you enter the room, a heated seat and a selection of music to discreetly mask any unseemly noises.

At the other end of the hygiene spectrum are the hills and fields of the simple and very poor people of Sumba. For over 10 years I’ve been   writing about Project Hope Sumba (PHS), an excellent NGO active in Sumba Barat Daya, one of the poorest areas of one of Indonesia’s poorest islands. One of their projects is to provide materials for toilets, which the villagers construct themselves.

A new project for PHS is to provide toilets for 300 families, nearly all subsistence farmers, in the remote desa of Wee Rame in Wewewa Tengah. About half the population has only elementary school education and most have no regular income. The desa was chosen by PHS because of the       cooperation of the kepala desa, and the intelligence and motivation of some of the very physically disabled people there. A priority is to construct toilets for families with disabled children but it’s necessary to also provide them to ordinary families to prevent jealousy and for general community  hygiene. The tested and well accepted toilet design includes two chambers; when one is full the contents are left to become compost.

Building materials in Eastern Indonesia are more expensive than in Bali due to high transport costs. The total of purchased materials for each toilet is about Rp 1.6 million, with the villagers providing all the local materials and labour. This isn’t a lot of money to most of us but makes a huge   difference to a desperately poor family.

Please donate to Yayasan Haripan Sumba, Bank BRI, 3579 Unit Waytabula Waikabubak, account number 3579 01 001055 531.

Think of it as your toilet tithe as you enjoy the largesse of the holidays. May your 2019 be a year of health, contentment, prosperity and sharing those great gifts with the less fortunate.


E-mail: ibukatbali@gmail.com

Copyright © 2018 Greenspeak

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