Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I May Have Used the Only Toilet

"Excuse me Sir. I was just wondering where your bathroom is?” I innocently direct my question to the director of the school on the Island of La Gonave, just off the coast of Haiti. It’s December 26 and we are wrapping up the feeding program we participated in for 50 of his 300 students.

The director looks at me uncomfortably for a moment and I watch amused as a handful of construction labourers stop what they are doing and stare.

“Is it a number one or number two?” He responds in perfect English. My mind goes blank. Number one or number two? What?

“Oh, I just have to pee,” I respond, blushing slightly, unaware of the dilemma I’ve just created. Watching him I can tell he is struggling to respond but I haven’t grasped the problem yet. This is a school after all. They have to have a bathroom somewhere!

“Eske ou gen papye twalet?” (Do you have any toilet paper?) He turns to the group of construction labourers still gawking and one nods. Reaching into his dirty pocket he pulls out a tiny square and holds it gingerly towards me.

Struggling not to laugh I shake my head. “I have some,” I tell them, and watch as he carefully puts the tiny square back into his pocket.

Was it just lack of toilet paper that was the problem?

“Follow me.” The director turns to me and I comply. We head out of the school, out the front gate and through a maze of streets until we stop at an open door of a small concrete home.

“Bonswa!”(Good evening!) the director yells.

A large woman is sitting in the front room on a bed surrounded by a few children. From the conversation I gather she is not family, but a distant acquaintance.

“Can this ‘blan’ use your bathroom?” he asks her. Without acknowledging my existence she nods. One of the kids shows me the way through a narrow hallway. At the bathroom entrance I stop. There is no door!

Thankfully the child and the director, who had followed us, retreat back to the front room and I can use it privately. It doesn’t flush though. When I’m finished the director comes with a bucket of water to pour into the toilet to flush it manually. Not wanting to add to the already awkward situation by standing around and watching, I quickly thank the lady, who still doesn’t acknowledge me, and make my way back through the twisted streets to the school.

Back at home in Port au Prince, curiosity gets the better of me and I decide to do some research on toilets, or rather the lack thereof, on the Island of La Gonave.

Here is what I found:
Consider this...essentially no households on La Gonave have a flush toilet and, astonishingly, fewer than 10% of the 10,000 families on the island of La Gonave, Haiti have even a basic outhouse latrine. This, in a land where diarrheal illnesses (e.g. typhoid, hepatitis, cholera, etc.) are one of the leading causes of death.* Urination and defecation are done on the surface of the ground wherever and whenever the need presents itself, and without regard to, or even the understanding of the consequences to health and disease. 

It’s obvious - any serious effort at restoring health and dignity bringing lasting change to La Gonave must start here, at this most basic level of human sanitation and hygiene. 

OUR VISION: A working latrine for every household on La Gonave. 

TOTAL NEEDED TO GET THE JOB DONE: 10,000 family latrines. 

As we move about the La Gonave’s villages, one of our starting points is educating their people on the importance of having a family latrine in order to prevent disease. All too aware of the ravages of cholera, villagers have been extremely receptive when we tell them how basic sanitation and hygiene measures can prevent the disease. 

Relieved to know that they can basically choose not to get cholera, they are taking us up on our challenge to them to build a latrine. We have put out a challenge to them; if they will dig a deep latrine pit, we will provide them with the concrete with which they can build a base and toilet stool. We allow them to house their latrine, then, with whatever materials fits (corrugated tin, palm fronds, etc.). 

The response has been overwhelming. So far, over 1,000 latrines have been built and are now in use with several small villages boasting 100% latrine use! This in a land where fewer than 10% of homes have latrines. 
• $20 will buy the materials to build a latrine for one peasant family 
• $2,000 will provide latrines for an entire 100-family village

** Please consider your part in helping us send shock waves throughout Haiti by making the island of La Gonave, the only part of Haiti where every single family has a working latrine! 

*Some 580,000 people have suffered from cholera, and more than 7,400 people have died from cholera since it showed up in Haiti two years ago. 

 Reading this I am stunned. I may have very well used the only, almost flush toilet, on the whole island! 

Obviously, there is still a lot to be done! If you want to help with this very useful project just visit this website:  and remember; don’t take your toilet for granted!


  1. I have experienced similar experiences when I was in Jeremie and Jacmel! it is amazing what we take for granted, and I will always carry a roll of toilet paper wherever I go in Haiti! :) I also had the opportunity to meet some people from Starfysh this past summer. Their headquarters is right here in Grand Rapids! They are wonderful people with a great mission! Thanks for posting a reminder of this great need in Haiti. -Kate Westrate

  2. Wow, that's amazing! (I wonder why he asked about nr. 1 or 2?!)