Reed Magazine: Madness and Sanitation in Haiti

By Matt Davis, Reed Magazine, Summer 2009

In the annals of public relations, it must be reckoned a signal achievement to persuade a skeptical New York Times reporter to stick his nose in a bucket of poop. But Sasha Kramer ’99 pulled off this reverse form of gotcha journalism with ease in March when she coaxed Pulitzer prizewinner Nicholas Kristof to sniff a handful of compost harvested from a toilet in Cap Haïtien, Haiti.

Kristof had flown to Haiti to film a video series titled American Ingenuity Abroad and interviewed Sasha and cofounder Sarah Brownell about Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, a nonprofit dedicated to solving two of Haiti’s most vexing problems: soil and sanitation.

“Frankly, I was a little bit taken aback that within minutes of meeting them, they presented me with the product of their toilet,” Kristof says in the video. Then, sniffing the compost, he adds: “Actually, it doesn’t smell at all.”

Haiti has the worst sanitation coverage in the western hemisphere; only 35% of adults in urban areas have access to a toilet. As a result, waterborne illness is the leading cause of death in children under five. At the same time, much of the country’s soil is depleted and conventional fertilizer is beyond the reach of most farmers, contributing to poor crop yields; Haiti currently imports 60% of its food.

Sasha’s interest in Haiti was first sparked in 2000, when she read Eyes Of The Heart by former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. She was particularly inspired by Aristide’s thoughts on sustainable agriculture, so much that she gave 20 copies of the book to her friends. A few years later, while studying for a PhD in ecology at Stanford, she visited Haiti to see agricultural conditions firsthand. When Aristide’s second term as president was cut short by a coup, she returned to do human rights work.

“It was really the first time in my life that I’d seen that kind of courage,” she says. “People were being shot in the streets at the time and yet still protesting the coup and it really moved me. I fell in love with the country.”

A dozen visits later, she completed a chapter in her PhD dissertation on “Liberation Ecology, Nitrogen, and Microbes,” arguing from her research that if Haiti could recycle 50% of its human waste, it could increase its production of fertilizer by a factor of 17—making strides towards solving the country’s food crisis and its sanitation crisis at the same time.

SOIL now employs 22 people and runs 47 public composting toilets in Haiti. The work is anything but glamorous—in fact, the nonprofit was down to its last $2,000 when Kristof visited. Since then, however, she has managed to raise more than $15,000, thanks to the increased attention. “His visit could not have come at a better time,” she says.

Sasha credits her unconventional career to her experience at Reed. She transferred to Reed in 1996, having found the atmosphere at Georgetown too conservative. “All my life, I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “But I think Reed allowed me to be the person I really wanted to be.”

She arrived on campus with a dog named Apeldoorn, who was, she concedes, “a bit of a terror. She liked to chase the bikers and nip at their ankles.” She signed up for a plant physiology class with professor David Dalton after seeing pictures of him with his dogs outside his office.

Dalton inspired her fascination with nitrogen cycles on numerous field trips to the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon coast. By the time she arrived at Stanford, she was a nitrogen cycle evangelist, going so far as to pee on her compost heap to see if she could create “the most local nitrogen cycle possible.”

Unusual though her path may be, she has no regrets about turning down a career in medicine for a life in compost. “What Reed really allowed me to do was be comfortable enough to express those new and creative ways of thinking,” she says. Creative thinking that, in Haiti, at least, holds the potential for enormous good.

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