If you build it, they will go.
They will go in a safe place without plunging through the rotting wooden floors into the foul cesspits below.
They will go in a private place that has doors to shield them from their classmates’ line of vision.
They will go in a clean place with proper ventilation and fly screens and, on a good day, toilet paper.
And because they have somewhere decent to go, they will also go to school.
The construction of 66 pit latrines at rural Kenyan schools, a project co-ordinated by retired Hamilton teacher John Smith, has not only kept the schools open, but increased attendance rates especially among girls.
Although they are primitive by North American standards, the cinder block structures are VIP calibre – Ventilated Improved Pit latrines, with concrete floors, windows, stacks, doors, locks and a recommended schedule of maintenance and cleaning.
There is no seating, just a triangular hole in the gently sloped floors. But they are nothing short of luxurious compared to the filthy, stinking, decaying shacks they replace.
Many of the schools in Ol Joro Orok in central Kenya had been condemned by health authorities, because of the condition of the latrines. But the efforts of Smith’s Connecting Countries Adopt-A-School (CCAAS) foundation managed to save them from almost certain closure.
The program grew from a chance meeting in 2005 at Toronto airport between Smith, a runner, and elite Kenyan marathoner Joseph Nderitu, a four-time Around The Bay Road Race winner who trained in Hamilton. A casual conversation ended with Nderitu agreeing to visit Smith’s class at Glenbrae school and talk about life as a Kenyan school kid.
“Some of it was pretty grim,” says Smith, whose students were so shocked to learn about the appalling sanitation that they organized a school walk-a-thon in April of 2005 and raised $3,100 for new latrines. The next year, the walk pulled in $6,600. Participating local schools have raised money through a variety of events, including bake sales, penny drives, raffles, picture day with Santa and an annual climb-a-thon of the Kenilworth stairs.
The CCAAS program, now a registered charity, entered a partnership with Feed the Children Canada, an organization whose Kenyan equivalent identifies the needy schools, hires the contractors and sends updates from the job sites. The latrines, which cost about $2,500 each, are built completely by hand, including spade-and-bucket excavation of pits 30 feet deep.
The 10 local schools, and five in Ol Joro Orok also, have a pen pal program in which 1,600 letters were exchanged last year, many of which expressed the Kenyan kids’ thanks for the new kybos.
Smith, who travelled to Kenya in 2007, said the schools are similar in many ways to Canadian schools, “but any similarity ends at the latrines. You would not set foot in them.”
With Friday, Nov. 19 designated World Toilet Day, Smith saw an opportunity to have fun and raise money while drawing attention to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to decent sanitation; and the 1.8 million, mostly children, who die because of it every year.
The board came up with a roster of nonsensical activities for a Potty Party, including Potty Putting, Toilet Tiling and Decorate-a-Plunger. But the day will end on a more sober note with a 4:30 p.m. address by Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace of the United Nations University, who will speak on water-borne diseases and the realities of sanitation in developing countries.
“We didn’t realize sanitation was such a huge world issue until we got into it,” says Smith. “I never thought when I retired that I’d end up in the latrine business. But I knew that if I didn’t keep my hand in it, the whole thing would go down the toilet.
“I didn’t mean to say that,” he quickly added with a laugh.
What: A Potty Party
When: Saturday, Nov. 20, 1 to 5 p.m.
Where: Columbia International College, 1003 Main St. W., Hamilton
Admission: $1 entry plus cost of tickets to participate in various games
Information: www.ConnectingCountries.net or 905-529-9799.