Swapping Tales Round the Ol Wata Kula

"You know I am a Christian – I don't have a kula – we Christians use toilet paper" –Krio textbook.

Unlike in many parts of the world, there is no waste basket next to Sierra Leoneon toilets filled with sullied sheets of paper. This could be due to the presence of superior plumbing systems that swallow any quantity of paper without the slightest hesitation. This seems unlikely. More realistically, one might presume that not enough people have actually used paper to convince the average toilet owner of the dangers. We have had multiple 3-hour sessions in our training aimed at instructing us never to pick up a sandwich, or throw a ball, or even wave using our left hand – this is your poop hand – and everyone knows it.

Some volunteers claimed that they had quickly transitioned to the hand wiping method since they lived in a distant village without easy access to toilet paper. This did not interest me. I would carry rolls back from Senegal if need be.

Flush toilets are a luxury in this country. My host family had one when I moved in – you could use the pitcher to fill the tank with several liters of water, then pull the handle, and everything would be neaty whisked away – but then one day, I flushed a little too vigorously, and the whole apparatus tore itself free from the wall, spilling its contents and shattering on the floor. My host mom rushed in to find me with my arms wrapped around the tank in one last desperate embrace, as if I might somehow hold the pieces together and preserve this last vestige of western convenience. From then on, I would be forced to gravity flush it by dumping several gallons directly into the bowl. Quite often, a splash of water – probably one that had come into contact with my excrement – would leave the bowl and hit my shoe or leg or arm. One time such a splash landed squarely in my eye. I debated whether I should contact the medical officer to arrange a preventative course of treatment for conjunctivitis.

A few of the volunteers had working plumbing, but others only had outdoor pit latrines that could be accessed only during daylight hours. I was pretty thrilled that I could use my PC-issued chamber pot for a trash can rather than for its intended purpose. One of the trainees gave me a rather vivid account of dealing with middle-of-the-night bouts of diarrhea with a chamber pot and the joys of cleaning it the next morning. I was beginning to see why they labeled this post "hard-core Peace Corps".