At the age of 18 months, your toilet education began. Your parents removed your diaper, sat you on a potty and kept you there until you pooped in it. With careful training, you learned to do this routinely, thereby becoming an acceptable member of society. By school age, you should have conformed properly to convention and found shit disgusting, at least in polite company. This attitude is biologically useful: disgust will keep you away from the potentially toxic substance of excrement. But not always: when presented with a range of soiled diapers, mothers in one study regularly rated their own baby’s poop less disgusting than others. (Otherwise, their parenting skills might get distracted by disgust.) Anthropologists are still arguing about whether disgust is innate or learned: Babies find shit no more unpalatable than ice cream. And millions of toiletless people choose to live among disgust, deliberately.
Virginia Chumacero starts with a snake dance. It breaks the ice, she thinks, and that is going to help. The villagers of Aramasi, an Andean village in Bolivia, have never met her before, and she is about to become unforgettable. That isn’t obvious at first, because Virginia does what countless visitors do, and asks to be shown around the village. Over to Uncle Esteban’s place; past the small chapel; behind the school. But then she goes further. She asks to be taken to where the villagers go to shit. At this point, she is following guidelines written by Indian agronomist Kamal Kar, who devised a technique named Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) 10 years ago. “It is important to stop in the areas of open defecation,” Kar wrote, “and spend time there asking questions while inhaling the unpleasant smell and sight of large-scale open defecation. If people try to move you on, insist on staying there despite their embarrassment.”
That done, Virginia returns to the main village square and asks her audience to draw a map with chalks. White for houses, blue for water sources, brown to indicate where each family defecates. She might also have calculated how much shit is lying around, tailoring the measure to her audience: boatloads in Bangladesh; truckloads in India; cartloads in this region of mountains. The total is always a shock – one house produces one ton a year – and the question always the same: where does it go? Then it is time for props.
No one can remain unmoved once they have learned that they are ingesting other people’s shit.
CLTS was invented to solve a mystery. For decades, toiletless people all across the developing world were given free or nearly free latrines. For decades, the donors of the latrines returned to find them unused, transformed into goat sheds or an extra room. There were reasons: Children were scared of the dark pits in latrines; some latrines didn’t have roofs or doors; some people just preferred shitting outside because their family had always done it.
Kar tried something different. Giving people toilets didn’t work: they would have to be persuaded that they wanted them. He would use software – psychology – not hardware – a free toilet – to change their habits. He would use disgust. It would be “community-led” because enlightenment is more powerful than instruction. “Total sanitation” because even if 99 percent of people have a latrine, the other one percent can still pollute.
Virginia’s plastic fly and brown paint powder are unconventional, but she prefers them. “I used real shit in the beginning, but one village got really offended and ran off. The powder paint works just as well.” She dips the fly in the brown powder, then into a glass of water. Here, drink! The villagers are horrified, as they are supposed to be. “The basic assumption of CLTS,” according to the CLTS guidebook, “is that no one can remain unmoved once they have learned that they are ingesting other people’s shit.” Virginia is content. The villages have been “triggered.” They make a promise to build latrines within three months. Then, houses with latrines will get a green flag; houses without will get red ones. “It’s about shaming and status,” says Virginia. “If you have a red flag, you are dirty, disgusting. No one wants a red flag.”
Introduce yourself to villagers. Use “shit” in the local language; crudity is important. Solicit slogans, such as, “a fly is more dangerous than a thousand tigers,” devised by a Bangladeshi villager.
Ask to be taken around the village, including to the open defecation grounds. Along the way, point out the flies, chickens or dogs eating the shit.
Take a bottle of water, a hair and some shit. Dip the hair in the shit, then the water, and offer it around. Even expensive mineral water will be refused.
After villagers realize they are ingesting shit, ensure no one performs open defecation by using children as police. Using loud whistles or leaving labels bearing the name of the open defecator by the shit usually works.