Nocturnal Latrine Cleaners (And Other Surreal Sanitation Stories)

  • Posted on: 8 April 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
Blog Tags 2 Terms: 

Former Central Plateau Resident, Professional Archaeologist, and Peace Corps Colleague Dan Broockmann sent in the following story about latrine usage in  Maissade.  2008 has been designated the year of sanitation and latrines are important for public health.  Every Haitian family would like to have one but the cost is prohibitive for many.   And as Dan writes, even latrines need maintenance eventually...


Well, my friends, I'm here on the front lines of Haiti's war on bad sanitation (we have a sanitation gap!).  In the pursuit of a better life for members of my community I have been looking into pulling off a large-scale latrine project.  Somewhere in my mind resting under the auspices of supposed intelligence is the demon called curiousity. 



I am a compulsive tinkerer (as one visit to my house will tell you) and yes MacGyver was my childhood hero (I can still hear the music in my head).  So on the road to trying to write up a latrine project (still in the works) I decided to see if I couldn't find a better type of latrine to serve the people in my area.  The reality of the situation turns out to be yes, but they cost more so the community gets less latrines.  Thus I have settled on the good old fashioned Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) Latrines.  But all this proves to be simple foreplay (and afterthought) to the amazing discovery that I made in the process of my investigations.



I was interested (after much reading) in the idea of composting latrines, so I took to the road to determine if this idea was culturally appropriate.  I was very quickly told that using human waste to fertilize crops was indecent and absolutely unthinkable (another idea tossed into the scrap bin of inappropriate technology).  But along the way I began to wonder then what happens to latrines in our area when they fill up.  I have never seen a latrine that has been abandoned in our area.  Do we have an amazing breed of unfillable latrines?  How deep do they dig these things anyway?  Is the upper plateau the most amazing place in Haiti?



So I began to talk with my neighbors, casually broaching the question of how the latrines around here are usable for so long.  The response was atypically short but carried across the board, "they get cleaned".  So the wheels of my mind begin to whirl and I began to wonder again. Why have I never seen a latrine being cleaned?  Who cleans the latrines?  Where do they put all the crap?



I brought the problem to my closest friends and most trusted informants here in Mayisad.  Oddly enough even they seemed reticent towards discussion of  the subject.  Finally I broke one of them down and out fell the truth.  "You have to know people."  What?  Know people?  Where am I, New York, Chicago?  The Mafia gets paid to take care of feces?  I thought perhaps I had heard wrong or was having a bad Kreyol day, so I inquired again. 



The answer came back again, "You have to know people."  It was explained to me that you have to find the middle-man who can work the deal for you, and in Mayisad these people are not generally know to make themselves visible.  Thus you start casually mentioning to your neighbors that you need to have your toilet cleaned and eventually somebody comes to find you.  This is only where the fun begins.



Once the middle-man has made themselves known to you, the price is negotiated and a date fixed for the latrine cleaning.  All you are told is that you must leave you latrine open, indicate an area where the fecal matter is to be buried, and not to come out of your house if you hear any noise that night (Which makes one wonder if a band of demons will be summoned to exorcise the waste products of you and your family?). 



When you wake up in the morning your latrine is cleaned out and returned to normal working order (minus the coprolites) and you know not to go digging in the patch of disturbed earth at the back of your property.  Does this awaken the imaginations and fears of anyone else?



In our midst is a band of people that secretly descend into latrines at night to retire the by-products of our rice and beans diet.  The people with large houses that we have chalked up to family in the States, is it that, or do they belong to the miners of filth (the price for latrine cleaning is not small).  I urge others to inquire into the nature of this phenomenon (if I disapear tell them I will be found in the newly disturbed pile of mud at the back of my neighbor's house).  I feel so alone knowing that they walk among us yet we will never know who they are.


Dan Broockmann

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