By Linda Espenshade
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo ‒The six new boys’ toilets and the six new girls’ toilets at Institute Katuze Secondary School are so much better than the two old pit toilets that they used to use, students said.
Wearing their blue and white uniforms, several students gathered near the new handwashing station and the latrines at their school in the village of Mosho II in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in February.
“The toilets before were in poor condition,” said Ariette Buhoro Muderwa, who is in 12th grade. “It was difficult to keep them clean. Because of the way they were built, you could easily fall in. They were not covered, just open.”
She’s talking about holes dug in the ground, each between 3- and 9-feet deep with planks of wood laid across them. An opening was cut in the middle to make a wooden squatting toilet, explains Principal Pascal Birhahwa Muhindo.
Open to the environment, the toilets had no walls or roof. “When it was raining, the wood would move and there was a possibility of someone falling in the hole,” Pascal explained.
Sometimes the rotting wood would break under the weight of the person using the toilet.
Falling in wasn’t the only problem. Toilets overflowed when it rained a lot, and worms congregated, infecting children through their feet. Snakes, too, surprised people using the toilets, slithering in from the nearby grass.
“And when people were passing by, they could see someone on the toilet,” said tenth grader Imani Bisimwa Emmanuel, “so there was no privacy.”
And there was no place to wash hands before going back to school.
All those problems and more have been eliminated at the school with the construction of new latrines and a new rainwater catchment system that provide water for cleaning hands and toilets.
Each new pit toilet was dug deeper – 21 to 24 feet deep – and covered with a 6-inch concrete base and a porcelain squatting toilet that can be sanitized. The toilets are enclosed in a small building with walls, a door and a roof.
Not only did the secondary school benefit, but so did the neighboring primary school, a Mennonite-Brethren church plant and 80 households in Mosho II and Mosho III villages. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provided the resources through its partner, 4ème Communauté des Eglises de Frères Mennonites au Congo (4th CEFMC; Fourth Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo).
Attendance of high school girls has increased since the new toilets were built, said Principal Pascal, who acknowledges that girls commonly are marginalized in the community and are too often exposed to sexual violence.
“Having toilets to protect them actually invites girls to come to this school,” Pascal says.
The toilets and water for washing hands also offer protection from illness, including cholera, typhoid fever, intestinal illnesses and malaria.
“This type of basic infrastructure for safe handwashing and waste disposal is also essential for preventing the spread of new infectious diseases like COVID-19, which is now spreading rapidly in DR Congo,” said Paul Shetler Fast, MCC’s health coordinator.
Cholera has been a problem in the Mosho villages, where flies spread diseases from the toilets, sewage from overflowing toilets contaminates water used for drinking and handwashing was not common. Open toilets are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which can carry malaria.
Evangelists from 4th CEFMC, who were planting a church in Mosho, realized something needed to be done as they witnessed children dying from cholera and when two teenage girls drowned in Lake Kivu, where they went to collect water.
So in 2017, the church, with MCC’s support, began to build latrines and rainwater catchment systems and to offer hygiene training to improve the health of the community.
The most vulnerable families were chosen to receive these resources. Jacques Safari Likwebo and Floride Murhimanya M’nkwale, a married couple who are elderly and have health conditions that limit their mobility, were among those selected.
The water that falls on their rooftop during the rainy season now drains into a large rain barrel inside their house, making it much easier for M’nkwale to cook and to wash her clothes, dishes and hands than it used to be.
She could no longer walk to the spring, wait in long lines and carry a 5-gallon jerrycan full of water to her house. Now she uses the water to wash their clothes, to do the dishes and to clean her house and new latrine. She boils the water for drinking.
“The water in the house helps me a lot,” M’nkwale said. “My neighbors who don’t have any, I share with them. I can’t have the heart of keeping the water to myself.”
The rainwater doesn’t last all year, she said, so her children go to the stream during the dry season, and she shares with them during the rainy season.
Down the dirt road from the elderly couple live Benedicte Fadzili Bugogero, his three youngest sisters and his blind grandmother.
His mother died and his father disappeared eight years ago, so he has been responsible for providing for his family since then. The new systems have improved his family’s health, he said.
“We suffered from malaria, fever and diarrhea,” said the 28-year-old. “Since this project, we haven’t had those diseases. We get sick but not as bad as before.”
Readily available water makes washing hands after using the toilet so much more likely, Bugogero added. People without accessible water come from the latrine without washing their hands and greet people, he said.
“I want to say thank you for the water and toilets. Today we have less disease and we feel safer, but we still have neighbors who don’t have the water, who don’t have the toilets,” Bugogero said. “They can pass on the disease to us because they don’t have the proper toilet and water, and we can still suffer.”
When the project began, local health leaders taught teachers and village leaders the importance of clean water, good hygiene and sanitary ways of dealing with human waste.
First-grade teacher Judite Bitondo Takisi passes on that information to her students, instructing them to wash their hands after leaving the toilet “because they have to protect themselves from dirty-hands disease,” she said. Because of the new toilets, fewer students are coming to school with swollen hands caused by worms that would enter their body through their feet at the dirty latrines, she said.
Teachers are grateful for the privacy of the latrines and the accessibility of water for their own hygiene, she said. The children take turns using the water from the school’s water catchment system to clean their classrooms at the end of each day.
Cleaner schools, cleaner toilets and cleaner students increases respect among people in the community, Takilil says, and it has increased enrollment at the school.
Gratitude for the church’s project has also increased attendance at church, Pastor Jacques Pilipili says.
“We want to say thank you,” Principal Pascal said. “Our hearts are filled with great joy because of what you have done. We have nothing to give you but prayers that God will protect you throughout life, prayers that your trees will bear more fruit.”
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ
Linda Espenshade is the MCC U.S. news coordinator.
Video available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aD-m_UHZlZM
Photos available: To download these photos, please visit the News Service 2020 photo collection. If you have any questions or need help with the system, contact Brenda Burkholder, Brendaburkholder@mcc.org.