Back Into the Toilet

This is one story from a multi-part series on SOIL’s adventures in Africa.

Our wonderful adventures in the depths of abandoned pit latrines continued this week with yet another descent into the old school latrine in Kalale Benin.

Our small SOIL team of myself, Baudeler (Bobo) Magloire and Anthony Kilbride, came to Benin one week ago to collaborate with a local organization ADESCA by sharing our ecological sanitation experience in Haiti in an effort to help make women’s community gardens in several rural communities more profitable.  For the past several years these women have been working with ADESCA and their international partner SELF to pioneer solar-powered drip irrigation systems in their local gardens.

Growing vegetables in Dunkassa.

This area of Benin is incredibly arid and for much of the year it is impossible to grow the crops needed to sustain the community.  With this incredible solar technology the women’s groups are able to tap into the groundwater table 12 m below the soil surface year-round and distribute the water to their gardens using drip irrigation systems, thereby increasing water use efficiency by over 50%.

Though the need for water has now been met, the women are currently facing a new barrier to production, nutrient deficiency.  With more water they are able to grow crops year round but the increased production has reduced the nutrient content of the soil, and each year they are required to add more and more chemical fertilizers to maintain harvests.  The women’s groups are currently spending a huge percentage of their income on purchasing fertilizers.  The purpose of our work here is to introduce the technology of ecological sanitation, thereby recycling nutrients from human wastes into the depleted soil and reducing the need for chemical inputs (and the associated costs).

Since it takes up to a year to produce compost from an ecological toilet, and we only had a few weeks to demonstrate the compost we had to try something that we had never tried before…excavating an abandoned latrine.  A few days ago we wrote about our exploratory trip into an old school latrine, which has been closed for the past 3-4 years.   Since we had no idea how the experiment would work out, we did the first trip with a very small audience consisting of our local host organization ADESCA (and the more than 50 school children who came running out to see what we were up to).  But after the incredible success of the first trip into the toilet, we wanted to share our experience with the women’s groups.

Gathering up every last ounce of compost.

We invited several members of each of three women’s groups from the communities of Bessassi and Dunkassa, where the community gardens are located, to come to Kalale to watch Bobo and I go back into the pit (given Anthony’s height and the small size of the hole, he was still on camera duty).  When the women arrived, Bobo and I were already hard at work, handing up bucket after bucket of beautiful soil. It is one thing to see the soil in a bag, and quite another to see it actually coming out of a latrine.  From deep in the pit Bobo and I could here the surprised chatter as the group approached.  Then one by one the women peered down into the hole offering words of encouragement and helping to haul up the buckets.  Once we had collected several sacks of compost we were lifted out of the latrine by the president of the women’s group in Dunkassa and all of our visitors helped us to scoop our pile of gold into sacks for transport.

After a good long shower and some vigorous handwashing we all ate lunch together and Bobo once again shared the story of the historical connections between Benin and Haiti.  As the women finished their lunches, he stood to tell them the story of Toussaint Louverture, the liberation of Haiti and Toussaint’s Beninoise roots.  He said “I stand before you today, not as a slave but as a free Haitian thanks to the struggle of my Beninoise brothers and sisters.”

Bobo takes a break from shoveling compost.

After the applause we sat with the presidents of the three women’s groups to hear their impressions of the day’s work.   All of the women agreed that they would be delighted to begin testing the new compost in their gardens as soon as we are able to transport it to them.  The president of Dunkassa closed the interviews by saying to Bobo “you have come such a long way to be with us here with us to share your work.  It was great love that carried you all this way, and it is with great love that we receive you.”

We know that the connections we have made on this trip will extend far beyond our short stay here and we hope to one day be able to welcome our new friends from the women’s groups to come and share their experiences with us in Haiti, so that they can see first hand how meaningful Benin’s contribution to Haiti has been.


Check out all the beautiful pictures from the day in SOIL’s Flickr album.

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