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The Happy Latrine & the Mango Tree

The Happy Latrine Project was initiated by the director of my school who wanted to build another restroom, and asked if I could help with the project—that’s why I’m here! I was happy to oblige. Our goal was to build four new latrines with running water and sinks, and to refurbish the existing latrines desperately in need of repair.

My personal goal was to get the boys to stop peeing on the mango tree.

Our school has over 1200 students and teachers, but before the new latrines were built we had only six latrines (one of which was permanently locked) that smelled bad and lacked enough water in the cistern to clear the bunghole. The latrines behind the administration building were always dark and filled with damp leaves. The locks did not work on the doors. Now students and teachers can feel safe and confident using the latrines knowing that the water is clean and maintenance will be ongoing.

I wrote a Peace Corps grant, but initially was skeptical that we could agree on the project process and doubtful we could complete The Happy Latrine Project on time. Clearly the school needed more restrooms with clean water (instead of pond water) and a place to wash hands. My hesitation had to do with our different East-West management styles. At initial meetings I would ask for a particular method of reporting and get nods of agreement, but when we met again the reports were not done. It was frustrating and worrisome to me, particularly since I was responsible for the management of funds.

An unexpected part of the process was our different views of project management. For me, having a plan means to follow the steps in order: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I couldn’t tell if my counterparts really agreed with this plan or not. While they said they did, I often found that the steps we talked about were later rearranged into a whole new dance. My priorities obviously were not their priorities.

For example, during the construction phase I was surprised to see the doors to the new latrine hung before the brick walls were completed. It got me thinking about hierarchy and order, and questioning whether it was indeed worthwhile to make plans that way, or if it was merely a western habit. I am still pondering that question.

I came to appreciate the “no problem” attitude of my cohorts. In the end, despite some quibbles about accounting style, the latrines were completed before the new school semester. Our water tested clean. Teachers and students alike are proud and happy to have access to the new clean facilities. With the addition of the sink with running water and soap, new hand-washing skills have been introduced. A PCV volunteer who is in the health sector will teach two hygiene workshops this month, one to all the teachers, and another to student workshop leaders who will be tasked with holding additional hygiene awareness workshops during the school year. Hygiene is a transferable skill. Once kids at school learn to wash their hands after using the restroom we are hopeful that they will teach their siblings and the rest of the family as well.

I have learned to relax more and trust that things will work out, even if I am not on a familiar path. (This is a lesson I need to keep learning, apparently.) My counterparts did what they said they were going to do, and did a good job. The most promising practice introduced in this process is that of continued hygiene education and maintenance. Since we have student leaders as part of the teaching team, we are hopeful they will find their responsibility to teach new students good hygiene practices something they can be proud of. And those boys won’t need to water that mango tree.

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