“I was shocked!” laughs Jorge de Jesus, a young father of two who introduced himself as “Rambo”. “When the guy took some hair covered in ‘tee’ [faeces] and put it in a bottle of water, he asked if we wanted to drink it! People got angry – of course not!”
That was the moment members of Mapeop, a small remote village high in hills of Timor-Leste in Bobonaro province, started to understand that having a toilet was far more important than they ever imagined. The hair symbolised the legs of a fly and was used to show villagers how faeces can be carried around into their water and food.
“With the facilitator, we started by mapping everything out together on the floor,” said the village head, Sergio da Costa Magelhaens. “We marked our homes, our water sources, and where we defecated… we then began to really see and understand how dangerous it was to go in the open.”
UNICEF is training and supporting local NGOs to start a ‘community led total sanitation’ approach. Community members, including women and youth, are taken through exercises to see how and where they defecate in their villages, and are helped to understand the risks this places on their health.
The process, known as ‘triggering’, inspires communities into action. The disgust and shock Jorge felt are just some of the emotions elicited during the exercises and communities are compelled to build simple toilets using local materials and help their villages become open defecation free, forever.
Once the members of 56 families in Mapeop village saw with their own eyes how much tee was spread around their village, and its impacts, they were eager to act.
“Everyone reacted well to the exercise,” says Jorge. “Afterwards, we all dug holes right away and within two weeks most of us had toilets.”
Throughout Timor-Leste, thousands of people, mainly in rural areas, defecate in the open. When waste is left in the open, it can contaminate water and food supplies, making people sick.
Children are particularly vulnerable and open defecation is directly linked to malnutrition and stunting – a severe problem in Timor-Leste affecting one in two children.
After only a few months, Jorge has already seen how much healthier his children are. “Before we had the toilet the children often had diarrheoa,” he said, proudly showing his toilet. “They had bad health. Since I built the toilet they’ve been very healthy – they look fresh. I’ve already seen the difference.”
For health & dignity
Christorio Noronha is unable to walk and moves around the village using his hands, gripping onto two blocks to protect them from the rough ground. Despite finding mobility difficult, he still took it upon himself to build a toilet straight away.
“Despite my condition I still wanted to build a toilet to keep me and my family safe,” said Christorio, sitting next to the entrance of his small home. “Otherwise it gets in your stomach through your food, your water and it makes you dirty and sick.”
He began by digging a 2.2 metre deep hole in the ground. “My wife helped me out once I was done, it was so deep,” said Christorio, surrounded by his wife and two children. “I then cut wood form the forest around us to build the structure. At the end I needed help from my son-in-law to put the roof on because I can’t reach.”
Not only was it a matter of health for him and his family, it was a matter of dignity as well. “I’m an old man. Young people would stare at me, sometimes laughing, when I went into the bush. It affected my dignity.”
After a moment of contemplation he proudly looked at his new toilet. “I built this myself. It’s my job to look after my family.”
The triggering process is all about empowering communities to take action themselves. The community spirit here in Mapeop was so strong that girls and boys in the nearby school decided to take action, with the support of their teachers.
“We built the toilet at school ourselves because we didn’t want to go in the bush,” said Ida de Jesus Balo, a 13-year-old girl. “This toilet is better. It’s safer than the bush.”
Her friend Isaues, 11, nodded in agreement. “When you go to this toilet no one can see you but in the bush they can. And there are no animals in the toilet – outside there are.”
The students had to work hard but after a few days they too had a functioning toilet for their school, with handwashing facilities.
So far, over 61,000 people from villages throughout Timor-Leste have been reached with UNICEF’s support, but many more are still in need of support.
Communities are educated on why open defecation is so dangerous, and shown how to construct safe toilets. At around $15 per person it’s a low cost, and sustainable way of ensuring communities are empowered with the knowledge to keep themselves healthy.
For Mapeop village and others that have been ‘triggered’, it’ll bring long-term benefits for generations to come. “We’ve all become aware that health is important for life and that toilets will help stop diseases,” said the village head Sergio. “We all have our own toilets now and we’ll all continue to use them.”
By joining hands with community members including children, parents, local authorities and partner organisations, real change has come about in Mapeop village – and this will also come for many other communities in the near future