Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs, Water & Sanitation

SIERRA LEONE: Plan For Sanitation Rests with Community

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Apr 1 2010 (IPS) - Lying forgotten in the bush somewhere is a sign declaring “Ogoo Farm is an open defecation-free community.”

This peri-urban community of roughly 3000 people was one of the villages where UNICEF and the Sierra Leone ministry of health implemented the pilot phase of a Community-Led Total Sanitation Programme in 2008.

The programme trains communities on the dangers of open defecation – which contaminates streams and other water sources – and mobilises action to end the practice.

According to the latest UNICEF and World Health Organization data, only 11 percent of people in Sierra Leone have access to adequate sanitation facilities; in the rural areas it is just five percent. Only about half of the population – and less than a third in rural areas – has access to safe drinking water.

Such statistics explain Sierra Leone’s unenviable position as the nation with the world’s worst mortality rate for children under the age of five.

But the gear pushing the programme forward in Ogoo Farm, 40 kilometres from the Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, appears to have become stuck in reverse. The majority of community residents still head for a quiet spot in the bush to empty their bowels.

“The project is simply not working properly,” Bai Kabia, the Ogoo Farm headman told IPS. He explained that initially the villagers were all thrilled with the idea of keeping their village hygienic.

“The sensitisation was dramatic. We realised that the idea of using the bush and streams in our village as toilet was bad and detrimental to the health of the whole village and we agreed to start building toilets,” Kabia explained.

He said that they dug 70 pit latrines around the village, each with a screen made of tarpaulin or nylon rice bags to shield a user from view.

The toilets were not an unqualified success. Ogoo farm’s women were among the first to abandon using them.

“These makeshift toilets are not very private,” Ramatu Kamara complained. “The heat that comes up these holes are unbearable when we stoop to use them. Moreover some of us have had infections using these toilets.”

There was worse to come. “When the rains came, the tarpaulin covering was destroyed. We also discovered that the pits were unsafe as the dirt around it was collapsing because we did not use iron rods to build the pit, we used sticks and these rot during the rain,” Kabia said.

“The holes even flooded and brought up everything we had sent down in them.”

Kabia said that they invited UNICEF and the health ministry to a meeting and told them about the problems.

“We suggested that they help us build proper toilets. We have offered to make mud blocks and we want them to give us corrugated iron sheets to (make a) roof. They promised that they would source funding for that but up till now nothing has been done.”

But Thomas Amara, the acting manager of environmental health in the ministry of health and sanitation told IPS that this is not how the sanitation programme works.

“What the project does is to trigger the community to take action against open defecation. We get them to see vividly that open defecation is bad for the community as it can contaminate their water source and thus lead to diseases including diarrhoea,” said Amara.

Arnold Cole, UNICEF’s water and sanitation health specialist for Sierra Leone, confirmed that the programme does not provide any subsidy whatsoever to communities.

“We encourage self empowerment.” Cole said. UNICEF is providing finance and technical support to more than 30 NGOs and six districts authorities to take the programme of awareness and mobilisation all over the country.

Cole claimed that Ogoo Farm was an exception in a programme that is succeeding in other parts of the country; alongside the health ministry, they have identified enthusiastic locals they refer to as “natural leaders” who then go into other villages and towns and spread the message.

The health ministry’s Amara said that in some rural villages in Port Loko, Kenema and Moyamba, the programme has been embraced so fervently that by-laws against open defecation have been passed, with heavy fines for defaulters.

“They also have been ‘scaling up’, building better and permanent toilets with their own monies,” said Amara.

One difference, he noted, is that villagers in the provinces usually own the houses they live in. They are more ready to bear the cost of building improvements like toilets than those in communities close to urban areas, such as Ogoo Farm, where most residents are tenants who look to their landlords to build permanent toilets.

Ogoo Farm headman Bai Kabia agreed, “They do not want to take responsibility for anything and as soon as they found out the project is being facilitated by NGOs – especially big organisations like UNICEF – they thought that there should be money for everything.”

And so it was that the “open defecation-free” sign was uprooted just two months after it was planted. “We do not want to live a lie, (open defecation) is still here,” the village headman sighed.

However Kabia revealed that the Farmers’ Association in their community has promised to build proper public toilets in different locations in the Community as part of their social responsibility.

The headman said he is also encouraging the community people, tenants as well as landlords to build toilets for their houses and that new house constructions will not be approved if the plan does not include toilet construction.

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