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.