Skip to main content

It’s lunchtime and the crowd are hungry.

Domingos Sawanda passes a plate of food to the person beside him: meat, beans, rice, cabbage – and a generous serving of human poo.

Understandably, nobody will touch it. Domingos offers it to the next in line. Disgusted, they too refuse it.  And so it goes on. No-one wants to eat poo, or food that has been close to poo. The very idea is revolting. And that, of course, is the whole point.

This is a sanitation awareness day in remote rural Angola, southwest Africa. Sunlight streams down on the mudbrick homes, a mix of traditional straw-thatched roundhouses and rectangular tin-roofed blocks. The 236 people participating have spent the morning working in smaller groups, each covering one zone of their village, Salomão. Some of them have been poo-spotting – noting and photographing any human or animal excrement they come across – while others have been surveying houses, to see whether or not each home has a working latrine and hand-washing facilities.

Their results show that there’s human poo out in the open in five of the six zones, and animal poo from dogs, goats or cattle in all six. Toilet facilities are much more widespread than they were a couple of years ago. In some zones, more than three-quarters of homes now have latrines. So why is there still work to be done?

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, due to a lack of available toilets, 20% of the entire population of Angola have no choice but to defecate in the open, with that number jumping to 55% for those living in the countryside.

With even a minority of people still pooing on the ground outside, everyone in the community is at risk of disease and young children in particular. Diarrhoea is a leading childhood killer, and nine out of ten cases are linked to unsafe water or poor sanitation and hygiene habits.

Domingos puts this front and centre in his session, helping people to understand the stark and direct link between unsafe toilet habits, and children dying.

After everyone turns down his plate of food, Domingos offers round a drink. He unscrews the cap from a bottle of water and carefully stirs in a tiny bit of poo. There’s only a trace amount and once it’s stirred in, you can barely see it with the naked eye. Once again, there are no takers.

The demonstration is a powerful and practical way to help people understand that small amounts of poo are invisible and that just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Domingos describes how pooing in the open contaminates drinking water with potentially deadly germs, and how flies and dirty hands spread disease.

“The purpose of these exercises is for people to understand that because there’s human and animal poo outside in the open, they’ve all been eating and drinking poo without realizing it,” Domingos explains.

Domingos works with Christian Aid’s local partner, the Angolan Evangelical Congregational Church (IECA). Given the lack of basic services in rural communities, with no sewers or running water, IECA trains people living in rural areas on how to build DIY toilets or taps.

However, these alone won’t solve the problem. People also need to want to use them. For many of Angola’s poorest who grew up in homes without toilets, pooing outside seems like a normal, natural habit – and often a necessity. Within many communities, the associated health risks aren’t widely known.

This is what Domingos aims to change. “This session focuses on kickstarting healthy behavior,” he explains, “and it does that by raising people’s awareness”.  By showing people, in an exaggerated way, what contaminated food and water look like up close, Domingos helps them understand how their food, water and health are being affected.

With momentum now gathering on latrine use, IECA have recently turned their attention to handwashing and rubbish disposal too, demonstrating how to build household landfill pits and tippy-taps – easy to make hands-free taps that dispense clean, running water.

People have only started to build these in the last year or two, and over a quarter of homes so far have a tap. It’s a good start, but Domingos isn’t going to miss the opportunity for another hands-on learning moment about poo and food.

After shocking everyone with his initial menu suggestion for lunch, he now wants to make sure that the actual meal is 100% poo-free and so, he leads the 263 gathered people to the tippy-taps. This time, everyone washes their hands before they eat.

Christian Aid works to assist some of the most vulnerable people within the poorest countries around the world. In addition to supporting sanitation efforts in Angola, Christian Aid provides support to Dalit women and girls in India, a particularly oppressed group within the Hindu caste system who are often forced by their local communities to remove human poo, often by hand, from latrines and sewers in exchange for a pittance. Through our partner ARUN, we provide them a means of escape from a life of degradation and poverty by training them to become tailors.

Author: Sian Curry