Supporting Haiti's "Underground" Sanitation Workers
“In Haiti, there’s a worker called a bayakou. The bayakou comes in the middle of the night to clean latrines, which generally get shoveled out only once every year or so… Few people ever see a bayakou. In fact, he has a status somewhere between a magical, fairy-tale figure and an untouchable.” – Amy Wilentz, The New York Times
Haiti’s bayakou have long been shrouded in mystery. Because of the significant social stigma attached to working with waste, some bayakou say that they keep their work secret – even from their families. Bayakou also face significant legal risks: until very recently, there were no legal waste dumping sites in the country, so bayakou had to dump illegally. Doing so is not only dangerous for the bayakou (putting them at risk of being arrested), it can also pose a serious threat to the community because waste is left untreated to leach into water sources, carrying disease-causing pathogens with it.
Fortunately, DINEPA, the Haitian government’s water and sanitation authority, is working to change this. There is now a legal dumping site in the capital and future sites are planned throughout the country. In the north DINEPA recently awarded permits to thirty bayakou to formalize their work. SOIL invited the newly-certified bayakou to visit SOIL’s operations in Cap-Haitien and learn more about how we collect and treat waste.
Our tour started in the Shada community of Cap-Haitien, where the bayakou visited both public and household toilets. After meeting some of the families that use SOIL’s services, they headed out of town to visit the SOIL waste treatment site. The bayakou enjoyed learning about the process of transforming waste into a useful resource through thermophilic composting. Finally, the bayakou visited our experimental farm and plant nursery, where they saw how the compost was being used to rebuild soil, increase yields, and grow healthy trees.
During the visit, several bayakou noted the value of working with a program like SOIL that could provide valuable infrastructure support. For example, many bayakou working independently have to rent vehicles for their work, which is both expensive and inconvenient. The opportunity to work in a more formal, organized structure, they noted, would ease some of their logistical difficulties and also help destigmatize their work in the eyes of the public.
This visit opened up an important dialogue that we hope will serve the basis for discussing a future partnership between SOIL and the bayakou – one that could change the landscape of sanitation services in Haiti.