On the blog

Friday, 16 October 2015

How toilets make you smarter

Forget your Carol Vorderman Maths genius manual. Sack the private Latin tutor. All you really need to get ahead in class is… a toilet, writes CEO Lorraine Kingsley. 

Ok, maybe not in Britain today. But it’s certainly true in Uganda, as 14-year-old Bridget will tell you…

Bridget at her home in south-west Uganda
The fact that Bridget is still in school is something of a miracle.

Uganda has one of the highest primary school drop-out rates in the world: only one in three Ugandan children completes primary education. And Bridget lives in one of the poorest parts of a poor country.

Her family are banana farmers – a particularly precarious existence, thanks to a banana blight that has decimated crops for the past five years.

Though state primary schooling is free, families still have to pay for uniforms and notebooks – and Bridget’s family can only just afford to eat. Her father was sick when we met him – because he didn’t have the £3 he needed to get medical help.

Bridget and her family
There’s another barrier to children’s education here – and especially for girls of Bridget’s age. Few schools have adequate toilets so boys and girls alike regularly fall sick and miss class. And when girls reach puberty and start their periods, they start missing school more often. Many drop out altogether.

At Bridget’s school, Ndago Primary School in Rukungiri district of south-west Uganda, about 20 girls used to drop out of school every year.

Bridget stayed put, but it’s not been easy.

‘Our old latrines were very disgusting, especially in the rainy season,’ she says. ‘You’d feel sick and people would be retching, because they were so smelly. We now have a very new pit latrine, which is comfortable to use. It’s got no bad smell and has no flies.’

The new toilet block for older pupils was installed by Toilet Twinning’s partner, North Kigezi and Kinkiizi Diocese Watsan (NKKD).

It also has a separate changing room, offering girls on their period somewhere private to wash or change their clothes. In poor, rural communities like these, families cannot afford sanitary towels.

‘Nearly all the girls wouldn’t come to school at all during their period – so they would miss a week of school per month,’ says headteacher Kenneth Mushoborozi. ‘This did affect their end-of-year grades.’

Bridget and younger sister Lodeth near the new school toilets
To his delight, more than 65 girls have enrolled at the school in the three months since its new toilets were installed. The old toilets for younger children have also been much improved, and NKKD Watsan has installed a water butt for handwashing.

The school held a special ceremony to celebrate their toilets, with singing and dancing.

We were there when the school’s new tapstand was unveiled, providing the children with fresh drinking water for the first time. Before, children were on a rota to trek 1km to collect from a stream. They missed class – for water contaminated by animal and human waste.

The tap stand was connected to a gravity flow pipeline and the children watched in silence as the tap turned on – then broke into spontaneous and sustained applause.

The beauty of this approach to hygiene education is that it harnesses ‘pester power’. Or as, headteacher Kenneth puts it, ‘Because of what the children have learnt at school, they will become ambassadors and teach their parents.’

For Bridget, life at home remains very basic. She shares a bed with one of her four sisters. All she owns is an exercise book for homework, a tin for her pencils and a few clothes. Her prized possession is a shiny pink dress that she wears for our arrival and the brief time we share with her family in the tiny entrance area that doubles as the family sitting room.

Our photographer and I perch on a wooden bench while Bridget and her mum and dad sit across from us on a sofa. The only other things in the room are a small table and two old calendars decorating the bare mud walls.

But change is coming. Our partner is now setting up ‘demonstration homes’ in the village, which have a proper latrine, a tippy-tap for handwashing, a drying rack for kitchen utensils and a line to dry clothes off the ground.

Such changes may sound modest but they’re key to keeping families heathy – so parents are well enough to work their land and children don’t miss school.

Bridget’s family lives opposite one of these model homes – and Bridget’s a committed ambassador at home for all that she’s learnt about hygiene at school.

When I finish school I want to become a nurse,’ she says. ‘To achieve this, I need to stay healthy.’

It’s a toilet which has encouraged Bridget to dream big – and it’s a toilet that has given her the first realistic chance of seeing those dreams become real.

·         Want to meet Bridget for yourself? Watch our short film about her school toilet block.  

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Calling all students...

If you think poor sanitation is bang out of order, we have a mission for you – should you choose to accept it.

Tired of being branded as bed-hogging tutorial-dodgers? We know students are game-changers and world-shakers – and we have the evidence to prove it.

A group of students at the University of Warwick (including, Jess Docherty, right) went all out for toilets in their final year – and twinned almost 50 toilets in the Students’ Union. Others at Bristol and Durham universities also kicked student stereotypes into touch by raising awareness and dosh for dunnies.

So, inspired by their example, we went straight to the bathroom – birthplace of all great ideas – and emerged with the germ of a big new idea. (No, no, that’s a good thing, not a cause for soap.)

So here’s the challenge: create a twinning team, twin lots of toilets at your place of study and make yours a Toilet Twinned University or College.

In the next few weeks, we can send you a student pack containing all the info and resources you need to start twinning. There’ll also be advice on our website and we’re always on hand to help you with everything from setting up on social media to getting into the local papers.

Register your interest by emailing us on fundraising@toilettwinning.org (Sadly, we can’t send you cake, though.)

Crib sheets

To whet your appetite, let us show you what’s possible when a handful of students get passionate about toilets…

The Warwick Toilet Twinning team were a small but perfectly formed group of five students who blended creativity, puns and some wacky ideas in a year-long fundraising campaign.  
Ring-leaders Emily Boyce (far left) and Jess Docherty began by gaining the support of the Student Union, the Student Council and the Christian Union – and soon earned themselves a bit of a reputation on campus.
To mark World Toilet Day (November 19), they organised a Big Squat – which involved a relay team of students squatting for 12 hours solid in the main campus piazza. Other events included a cake bake (above), a second-hand clothes sale and an ‘Apoostic Night’ when musician friends gave their time at a fundraising gig.
Jess and Emily even dressed up as toilets (right) to collect spare change, laying their reputations on the line for the noble cause of twinning. ‘We were very loud on social media to the point where people knew us as “those toilet people”,’ says Emily.
But the cause made it all worthwhile, says Jess. ‘We are both genuinely passionate about international development so that made us want to give time to it. And people were very generous…’
Meanwhile, students from Bristol University's School of Geographical Sciences raised more than £360 at their annual Globe Ball to link their loo with a latrine in Burundi.

And students at Durham University twinned toilets in ten of its colleges after student Lis Martin fired up her friends to tackle the poor sanitation she’d experienced first-hand in Africa with Tearfund. At Lis’s prompting, the Student Union passed a motion to twin a toilet from each college with a loo in Burundi – then the Charities Committee and Lis organised a ‘rag raid’ on the streets of Edinburgh, which raised £600.

Join us?

So you really can change the world, one toilet at a time. And if you sign up some mates to help you, you can achieve a whole lot more.

It’s the same principle that Toilet Twinning follows at grassroots level: we bring people in poor communities together to decide what they want and how they are going to achieve it.

And a Toilet Twinned University or Toilet Twinned College campaign will work best when you form a team, pull together and get busy with those toilet puns. Think about it: if you twin lots of toilets, you can transform life for an entire village. Forever. 

Definitely worth getting out of bed for… even after a long night, erm, in the library.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Humanure: turning poop green

For many, toilets are taboo and (ahem) human waste is unspeakably off limits. But we at Toilet Twinning believe that our poop should not be poo-pooed.

In fact, it has huge untapped potential to revolutionise the way the world farms and feeds its families – all thanks to the wonders of composting.

Already, Toilet Twinning partners in several countries, including Uganda and the DRC, are installing ecosan toilets – miraculous thunderboxes where our doodly-squit is composted and transformed into a soil conditioner bursting with nutrients.*

Because, if it’s properly composted, human waste can become ‘humanure’, solving waste management issues, boosting agricultural yields and sparing farmers the cost of expensive fertilisers.

In countries such as Haiti, eco-san toilets as a waste management system helped contain the cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 earthquake. And pioneering humanure projects in Bangladesh promise new business opportunities as well as improved harvests; here, plans to use humanure as an alternative cooking fuel are good news for the environment too.

An eco-san toilet in Bihar, India
Compost loos offer significant practical advantages over other types of latrine in some contexts. Because in most types of composting loo the pits are used cyclically – with some sealed for decomposition while others are opened – they need not be dug so deep.

So the humanure revolution is gathering pace. But its advocates do face some challenges. Understandably, many people are squeamish about using human poo to grow food.

As Tearfund’s WASH Lead, Frank Greaves, explains, it can take a great deal of time and persuasion to change attitudes in the poor communities where we work if composting and the recycling of human waste are not the norm.

‘We have to be really sensitive to cultural beliefs and practices,’ says Frank, ‘but people are very excited about the potential of eco-san toilets when they can see the difference that composting in this way can make to their farming.’

Once some people start using composting latrines, the concept is promoted more widely, typically through ‘village champions’ and ‘demonstrator households’, Frank explains.

Mandy Burton reads from The Loveliest Loo at a workshop
Toilet twinner and environmental artist Mandy Burton also understands people’s initial qualms – but she is keen to help overcome them.

Mandy has just written The Loveliest Loo, a children’s colouring book about a waterless composting toilet, featuring the world’s first Toilet Twinned imaginary loo, no less. (Yes, her beautifully drawn virtual loo is officially twinned with one in the DRC.)

The book is a simple and witty account in verse of Pearl’s first visit to a compost loo. The child’s wonder at these natural processes is something that Mandy herself has never grown out of.
‘I’m fascinated by the composting process: you shove all this stuff in and out comes beautiful soil,’ says Mandy. ‘For me, composting symbolises life, death and rebirth and it’s an absolutely magical process.’

But there’s a deeper concern underlying Mandy’s love of compost loos and it’s one Toilet Twinning shares: environmental sustainability more generally.

That’s what drew her to become part of Redfield, a housing cooperative in Buckinghamshire devoted to permaculture and sustainable living. Redfield is also home to lowimpact.org, a network of organisations promoting similar values, which printed Mandy’s book. Mandy’s imaginary loo was inspired by the compost loo at Pinfold Community Garden in Barnsley, but Redfield has compost loos too (as well as more mainstream models), which fertilise its orchard.

‘It’s crazy that we use clean water to flush away our poo when we know that it can very easily be transformed into a fantastic soil conditioner,’ Mandy says.

And she makes a serious point. Almost a third of the water we use in our homes is flushed down the loo. That’s about 2 billion litres of fresh water flushed away every day in the UK alone, says Waterwise.

It could be some time before waterless dunnies or compost loos become mainstream in the UK, though their star is rising. The fact they need neither water nor sewerage makes them a very practical option in many locations – from allotments to golf courses to festivals such as Glastonbury.

For Mandy, there are more pressing reasons than mere convenience.

‘Compost loos are all about preserving resources and we really must do that,’ she says. ‘I wanted to write something for children because they are our future. They are the ones who are going to have to pick up the pieces.’

And, by the way, 2015 is the UN's International Year of Soils

*The science bit
Composting loos use evaporation and natural decomposition to make wonders out of poo. Human faeces in the presence of oxygen naturally breaks down into pathogen-free, nutrient-rich compost, thanks to aerobic bacteria. Get the right balance between oxygen, moisture, heat and organic material and you create the perfect breeding ground for these micro-beasties.