By James Tamba Lebbie
Public toilets or “restrooms” (as the Americans would call it) are almost non-existent in Sierra Leone; and the unsanitary conditions of toilets in most public and private offices are too ghastly to imagine. With very few exceptions, almost all toilets in public institutions are dysfunctional. Their pungent stench of urine and human excreta is enough to eliminate the feeling of “a call to nature” in any decent human being. Simply put, toilets – if they do exist – are facilities of utter neglect in this part of the world. And such a neglect is borne out of several factors, among them human indifference and the lack of water and sanitation.
With regard to our indifference to toilets, many people in this part of the world do not bother to commit funds and attention to sanitising what is supposed to be a personal hygiene facility. And because it is thought to be a dumping place for human waste, the thinking is that our toilets should reflect those grim realities. Without exaggerating, such an image of Sierra Leone is undermining whatever rebranding efforts might be on-going.
For instance, I recall transiting through Brussels to New York in June 2010 together with an African-American lady of Jamaican descent on board SN Brussels whose impression about Freetown was very uncomplimentary to say the least. She was an airline staff working in Atlanta who said she was in Freetown for the first time to see her fiancé, an officer in the Sierra Leone Army. Among the litany of complaints she highlighted about my country, she was particularly peeved about the unsanitary conditions of the toilets. She recounted visiting a hairdressing saloon where she asked to use the restroom. She said she retreated as soon as she entered the place. She would just not understand why people in expensive and flashy outfits would use such an indecent place as a toilet.
As she narrated her ordeal, I was embarrassed not just by her utterances but also by the feeling of revulsion on her body language. She was not sure whether she could make another trip to Sierra Leone again regardless of her boyfriend being in Freetown. According to her, the condition of a restroom or toilet (whether in a private home or in an office setting) is an indication of the importance people attach to the issue of hygiene and sanitation in their environment. In her judgment therefore, Freetown was an unhygienic place to live. I tried but vain to persuade her otherwise; she was just unimpressed with our sense of (in)decency. And this is just one example of the many visitors that have been turned off and/or discouraged from visiting Freetown. But let’s call a spade a spade, many Sierra Leoneans do not regard their toilets (both at home in their offices) as a facility to be always kept clean and decent. They would think about it only when they are hard pressed for its use.
The second reason for the unsanitary conditions of our toilets is the unavailability of water. With the rising demand for self-contain homes and the use of flush toilets now in the vogue, it does not require a rocket scientist to know that those facilities will become incubators for epidemic diseases if they lacked a continuous flow of water. Unfortunately, water is in very short supply in Freetown today. The agency in charge of water resources in Freetown, the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC) is grossly under-resourced; a situation compounded apparently by incompetence and utter neglect. I will mention neglect because the number of ruptured pipes wasting water in street corners around Freetown is almost equal to those supplying water to the public. And GVWC have hitherto not come up with a comprehensive strategy to address the serious water poverty plaguing the city in a country that has almost six months of rainfall. The irony is both absurd and ridiculous. An Ethiopian friend told me Sierra Leone was blessed with a magnificent weather. He said in a country with a serious agency in charge of water, a possible strategy to deal with the year-in and year-out water shortage in the city could be a consideration to harvest the millions of tons of water that wastes during the raining season with a plan to store it for possible treatment during the dry season for consumption.
Granted that the vexed issue of water shortage is certainly not peculiar to Freetown alone but is a sub-regional and by extension a continental problem, one would have expected our governments to deal with this situation with the seriousness it deserved. In April, 2012, the World Health organization sounded an alarm bell that although “nearly 80% of countries recognize the right to water, and just over half of them the right to sanitation, realizing the rights to water and sanitation may help targeting resources to unserved population and avoid discrimination in the provision of WASH services. However, just one in five countries consistently applies equity criteria in funding allocations for sanitation, whereas one third applies equity criteria to drinking-water investments”. Further, as recently as in February, 2013, the “End Water Poverty” campaign revealed a very grim statistics about the shortage of water in the world as it endeavors to mobilize the world “to take action to call for an end to the water and sanitation crisis” on 22 March this year. It says “in Sub-Saharan Africa today, 330 million Africans (39% of the population) are without access to clean water. While a staggering 600 million go without safe sanitation – 70% of the population. Every year 400,000 African children under the age of five die from diarrhea diseases brought about from a lack of these services”.
So, while one can clearly understand that the water crisis is of a continental dimension, Sierra Leone has no reason to be ravaged by water poverty owing to its rich climate and vegetation. All it takes is a comprehensive strategy by GVWC backed by a serious political will to addressing the country’s environmental degradation that is undermining the city’s water table. But in the absence of any clear-cut strategy to addressing our perennial water poverty, the daily practice of kids and adults alike gallivanting with jerry cans in search of water for domestic consumptions is disgusting to say the least. It has also become a common practice to see office vehicles filled with jerry cans going in search of water for use in office toilets. Many home owners with vehicles now almost always have their cars filled with jerry cans with the sole object to filling them when returning home from work yet, we have a government that is busy trumpeting, even if misguidedly that Sierra Leone is on a threshold to achieving prosperity. This is a big joke!