Although everyone poops, talking about passing gas, farting, or heaven forbid doing it in public, having diarrhea, having to go number two, or anything of the like has always been an embarrassing topic for me. I’m not sure why when that’s not the case for many of those around me, but maybe my formal training in “being a lady” from my modeling days had something to do with it. Preparing for my travel to Burkina Faso, I knew toilets, toilet paper, and medicine for an upset stomach, would be in short supply, so I packed travel size tissue packs and hand sanitizer that I could replenish my purse with, and a prescription for traveler’s diarrhea. In an effort to avoid using these items, I never intentionally drank the local water. I even brushed my teeth with my precious, expensive, bottled water. These things were much easier to accomplish in the city though than in the village, which I would soon find out.
TOILETS IN THE CITY
I knew toilets were limited in the village, but ignorance, that’s the only word I can think of to describe it, led me to the assumption that access would be different in the city. You know what they say about assuming right? Finding a toilet for that ass was an adult scavenger hunt. Even if there was a toilet in someone’s house, toilet paper was a rarity. I learned quickly to keep TP in my purse at all times—even when at home. Public toilets took it a step further. There definitely was no toilet paper and often no such thing as a public toilet room.
Being white carries privilege that I have spent my career fighting against or make sure to share the benefits I receive with others. Privilege abounded on my trip, and I found myself ok when it meant that I was offered access to an actual toilet. This was especially true once my diarrhea and gut issues started. While presented with a bathroom, sometimes that meant a hole to squat over, a toilet without a seat, and my true horror— no flushing ability so someone would come manually do it and see the mess I left. So embarrassing!
One day while at a public place I asked for a toilet and I was present a wall. I wasn’t trying to judge, but what was I supposed to do with a wall?! Nikiema left quickly so I couldn’t ask him, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask out of sheer embarrassment. I looked around for a hole in the floor but nothing. By the smell I knew people had relieved themselves here. A woman came by and I walked away around the corner where I could peek to see what she did. I felt like a peeping Tom, but I really needed to know how to pee here.
With her butt facing the wall, she lifted the back of her skirt and bent forward. Then she left. What just happened?! After a little detective work, I concluded that she positioned her body to pee on the wall and it ran down into the small gap between the wall and floor. This was very different from squatting, which I still hadn’t mastered by the way. I continued to get urine on my feet, and sometimes also on my leg or even clothing, depending on what I was wearing. Thankfully I was able to hold my urge to poop at this time. Can you imagine? Trying to pee on the wall made even more of a mess on me than squatting. I was so thankful no one came around the corner to witness the mess I was in at this moment— literally and figuratively. How did people do this? They learned at a young age I assumed. I was over thirty years of age and it was like I was being potty trained for a second time in my life.
I began to think about the public restrooms in Germany from my visit when I was 16 in the mid-90’s. At the time, I remember thinking it was ridiculous to pay to enter the stall or for the toilet paper. I don’t know which one had to be paid for, but right now in Burkina Faso, 20 years later, I’d be happy to pay for the luxury of access to a toilet and toilet paper.
RELIEVING ONESELF IN THE VILLAGE
Once I arrived in the village, I longed for the hole in the floor, even the wall to aim at, as I was told to just find a place to go. My mother spends countless hours outside hunting and fishing. Finding a place to relieve and not pee on herself is a skill she has and most definitely didn’t pass onto me. Even if squatting wasn’t a factor, it was daylight and I didn’t want people to see me. There wasn’t woods for me to hide in and how far could I safely wander? Where was it safe from men and animals? What if I had my period or need to poop? I found myself on high alert.
Again my privilege came into play when my interpreter witnessed the fear on my face and wheels turning in my head trying to comprehend this task. She asked the hotel if I could use their facilities that was for guests only, and I wasn’t a guest. I was so grateful because my stomach was very upset and weird bowel movements were becoming a staple occurrence by this time in the trip. It didn’t seem to fit the description on the traveler’s diarrhea prescription, so I didn’t worry. I was just grossed out. My toilet paper and tissue count was low and I worried I’d have enough to last until returning to the city. TP rationing commenced.
There was a structure close to the huts that I was told I could use to relieve myself and shower. Like the other spots up to this point, I didn’t see any fecal mater or used tissues tossed after wiping. I kept my used tissue without poop in a baggie in my purse until I could find an appropriate place to dispose them. There was no toilet or hole. I continued my efforts to squat over a flat surface without splash up on me or my clothes, but still no luck. What I noticed later as we toured the village was that the structure drained over the main walking path between the field and the huts and ended up in the field where they were working and planting food. People walked bare foot or in shoes that allowed for exposure to the waste.
Toilets were installed in most Minnesota homes by the 1950s, yet I remember my aunt and uncle’s outhouse. They used to have a pot in the closet in case of emergency or those middle of the night urges during the dead of winter. I understand that— negative temperatures, bare butt exposed, not to mention creatures that go bump in the night— I’d have a pot too. I never put together the phrase, “so poor, didn’t have a pot to piss in,” until now.
When sleeping on the roof of the hut, I had one of those during the night urges. While it wasn’t cold, I would be exposed and didn’t know what I might find in the dead of the night. I tried to go back to sleep, but ever since I gave birth to my daughter, once I think I might need to go, it’s all I can think about. So I took my flashlight and tissue, slid into my flip flops and carefully made my way down the narrow stairs. I went to the structure because I knew what to expect and felt semi-protected. While I was safe during the act of relieving myself, my return to the roof wasn’t. I was attacked— by a hut. In my staggered slumber and dim light, I managed to stub my toe. With the number of broken toes I’ve had in my lifetime, I was sure it happened again. The morning light on my toe revealed what I knew. That color of purple is special to my breaks. That’s my favorite color, except when it’s on my body.
When it was time to shower, I wondered how it was supposed to work. The structure came up to the top of my stomach (I was about 5’10”) and there was no door but a wide uncovered opening. My breasts stuck out above the structure and there was no curtain. I would be visible while naked. I had adapted to many things, but this was hard for me to grasp. Others did it and people didn’t seem to care, but nudity in the USA verses Burkina Faso or other parts of the world was different.
I was given a piece of material like a sarong wrap. I was told to wear it to the shower. The structure had a bucket, smaller than 5 gallons, of warm water in it when I arrived. I was instructed to save water for three others to use as well. I thought I conserved water at home, but this took it to the next level. When I inquired about my privacy, I was told to use my wrap as a shower curtain after a stick was placed across the opening. How was the act of making my wrap a curtain not going to lead to exposure?!
Slowly and strategically, I unwrapped the material that was horizontal on my body. I maneuvered the fabric to the front of my body with my butt exposed inside the structure, but it was beneath the top of the wall. I slowly turned the material to vertical, carefully covering body parts, and laid it over the stick while crouching down so my breasts weren’t exposed. This could be an Olympic sport with the precision and skill administered.
After successful installation of the shower curtain, I took my shower. I had to squat down so not to expose myself, but had to stay upright enough not to touch the ground that was soiled with human waste. A cup was provided to pour the warm water over my tired body and wash away the dirt and heat of the day. This happened in the morning and in the early evening or before bedtime. At first I thought it was excessive, but soon realized it used less water than just one shower back in the US. Also, with 115F heat, it was needed. Once bathing was complete, the cloth made its way off of the stick and onto my body the same way it came off my body.
The material was fine for a wrap and curtain, but what about drying off? This was no towel. I was told to have a seat next to the hut. I felt exposed— I was naked under this and notorious for my poor wrapping skills resulting in my towel falling off. Feeling vulnerable as I clung to my wrap in fear of embarrassment yet to come, I imagined this might be how villagers felt when white people come and view and judge them. In the time it took me to think that, I had been dried by the sun. The fact that I truly was dry proved it was a dry heat with no humidity.
MASTERING PEEING WITHOUT A TOILET
After three to four days in the village, it was a three and a half hour car ride back home to the city. I used the hotel outhouse one last time. Given the heat and my lack of sweating, I drank a lot of water. At some point in the journey home, we pulled over to the side of the road to relieve ourselves. I had one final tissue left. Us three ladies went on one side of the road, while the chauffeur went to the other side. It had taken almost two weeks, but for the first time I squatted without getting any urine on me, anywhere, including my foot.
“I did it!” I exclaimed loudly. The interpreter and her daughter giggled at me in a manner that seemed to say, “It’s about time!” From across the road the chauffeur yells, “What is it? Is there a lion?” I mustered out a giggly, “No!” and then got a look of horror on my face. Well, I would imagine that’s how it looked as the notion that there could be lions out there ran through my head faster than I was pulling up my shorts. In my haste I littered as I didn’t even think to bag my tissue.
After starting my memoir, I found my trip journal that I hadn’t read since my visit. I had a reflection entry on my first 24 hours in the country. “I seem to be obsessed with peeing. I see people going on the side of the road, no diapers on babies, squatting because there are no toilets, no toilet paper. I don’t know why I’m so aware of this!” I didn’t remember writing or thinking those things until I read my journal, six years to the date that I booked my trip. Looking back now, I see how water and sanitation were destined in my path from the very beginning.
#sanitation #toilet #bathroom #poop #water #cleanwater #Tiebele #BurkinaFaso #Africa #travel #international #SarahDrake #herartsinaction