After an hour in the displaced persons camp, I realized how little I knew about sanitation. That’s why I’m happy Jean Philippe DeBus is with me.
We had traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, a city that’s digging out from last week’s flood. Jean Philippe is CRS’ water and sanitation expert in West Africa. He worked for years in some of Africa’s most difficult places. Pick your trouble spot in the 1990s—Angola, Chad, Mozambique—and chances are, he was there.
He’s been shot at, screamed at, and threatened. But during this abuse he also picked up an expertise: Toilets in refugee camps. Don’t laugh. Jean Philippe knows latrines. It’s not sexy, but, as Jean Philippe will tell you, hygiene and sanitation are darned important. He can arrive in an Africa conflict, boiling with chaos and confusion, and, in a matter of hours, have a sanitation and hygiene system underway for those in need. It’s scary how efficient he is.
Just imagine: Your house has been destroyed, all of your belongings swept away, and at night you have to huddle on a cold concrete floor next to people who haven’t bathed in days. When nature calls, the last thing you want to do is slog through the mud to a bank of latrines, breathe through your mouth, and brave an overflowing squat toilet. Your only other option: hunker down in the shrubs as your tail is tickled by the toolie weeds, hoping nobody comes around the corner.
That’s the case for some of the 48,000 residents of Burkina Faso who are housed in temporary sites after a powerful rainstorm flooded the capital city, Ouagadougou, September 1st. At the Nimnin primary school that Jean Philippe and I visited, finding water wasn’t a problem. But disposing of it was. People stepped around huge greenish puddles and tiptoed through the mud wallows that had formed under the three functioning spigots.
That’s why it’s good to have Jean Philippe here. He quickly set about sticking his head into outhouses, inspecting latrines, and tromping through the grass behind school buildings. He knows people don’t like going in the latrines located in full-view of other displaced people. “It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be exposed when they enter a toilet,” he says. “People need privacy for personal hygiene.” Everyone could see them entering, he says, and how long they stayed there. (Haven’t we all thought twice about entering a Porta Potty?)
Sure enough, when Jean Philippe looked in the weeds behind a classroom, the calling cards of Burkinabé seeking privacy were scattered all over.
That’s why CRS started today working to improve the sanitation facilities in some of the displaced persons sites. By building or rehabilitating toilets, constructing showers, fixing the drainage around spigots, and setting up teams of camp residents to promote proper hygiene, the chances of disease spreading will go down.
All of this will make the lives of people who have lost everything a little easier. “We want to prevent an epidemic, and at the same time, do it while giving people their dignity,” says Jean Philippe.
em>Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa.
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