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Let's Talk About Toilets

Let’s talk about toilets!  Seriously, the toilet perils of travelling don’t get talked about enough – maybe because so many of the Africa travelogues I’ve read are written by men and, I don’t care what anyone says about gender equality, men simply don’t have the same issues when it comes to toilets.  They can generally whip it out and pee anywhere (and they do … every time I turn a corner there’s an Ethiopian man peeing up a fence or a lamppost or on a parked car) but for women it’s not so easy.

For a start, sometimes a toilet, however rudimentary, doesn’t actually exist.  At the school I work at, there are no toilet facilities (they are being built) and very little cover to enable you to pee behind a tree.  Consequently, if I’m at the school from early morning until the evening I have to either drive back to the town to pee (which makes me feel utterly ridiculous) or just hold it.  So I try and plan to only stay for a few hours at a time, and ration the amount I drink (not sensible at all).

So, wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing, you try and make sure there are toilets.  The first time my three male colleagues and I were going to drive from Lalibela to Addis, I made sure I said to Abiy, the driver, ‘look, you guys are men, you can pee anywhere, but we have to make sure we find me a proper toilet sometimes’. 

I don’t mean I have to have a western style toilet, I’m quite happy with a hole in the ground – in fact, these can be a more pleasant experience.  Toilet wise, I have done things I never would have done in the UK; I have peed while goats watched, peed in a group, behind a tree (okay, I’ve done that one before!), in the most disgusting and smelly shed, and – most memorably – I have peed in a hat (don’t ask.  It was an emergency). 

I’m not asking for 5 star toilet facilities, I’m relatively unfussy.  The one thing I do ask for is some kind of privacy – it amazes me that in most of Ethiopia they don’t feel that a door is an essential part of the toilet experience.  I really do.  In one café where we stopped for breakfast, people eating had a perfect (I’m talking cinema-scope) view of anyone using the toilet as there was no door.  Of course, this is fine for men, but for women it’s not ideal.  Can you imagine what would have happened if I’d used the toilet?  A faranji?  I suspect they would have been talking about it for days.

Even when there is a toilet door, it’s rare that the door closes properly.  A newly built, beautiful hotel in Lalibela has toilet doors that have to be held shut whilst you are peeing, which requires quite a lot of balance and freakishly long arms.  Worse than that, the toilet doors are half glass!  Half glass!!  What’s that all about?  Yes, it’s ‘smoked glass’ so you can’t see detail, but you can still see the shape of someone sitting on the toilet, and quite frankly, that’s not a silhouette I want anyone to see.

Once you’ve worried about showing your big (well, in my case) white bottom to the watching world, you need to worry about quite where you’re putting that bottom.  Toilets in Ethiopia run the full gauntlet from ‘lovely’ right down to ‘oh my God, that’s disgusting’, but it’s amazing what you can ignore when needed.  I have peed (and worse) in the smelliest and most repulsive excuses for toilets I have ever seen.  I can’t understand why they just don’t clean them, especially when they’re in hotels and restaurants.  When I was in the South of Ethiopia, there was a particularly revolting toilet in a hotel (I’d name and shame, but I can’t remember exactly what it was called).  The floor was covered with something that definitely wasn’t mud and as I gingerly tiptoed my way through it, I dropped my shawl.  Argh!  I could have cried.  In fact, I was ready to throw it in the bin – it’s bad enough having to deal with horrible toilets, let alone carry the contents around on your clothes – but luckily there was a big sink outside and a lovely woman who managed to clean it in minutes. 

So, cleanliness is not always a given, and you don’t get much privacy, even in the 3 star hotels.  You don’t always get toilet paper either.  When you first travel in Ethiopia this comes a bit of a surprise and you get caught short sometimes, but soon you get used to it and you learn to steal any toilet paper you come across, stockpiling it in your bag for future emergencies.  (Hmm ... maybe that’s why there’s never any toilet paper?) 

Of course, all these issues triple their impact when you start factoring in dodgy stomachs or periods - I know, I know, but nobody talks about these things, and it’s an important consideration.  How can I go and work at the school when I might need a toilet at a moments notice, and just popping behind a scrubby bush won’t cut it?  When you’re doing a 9 hour drive and the only place to pee is behind a tree – well, it’s not the best feeling in the world when you are fighting a heavy period.  And if you’re travelling with someone … let’s just say that amoebic dysentery really deepens the intimacy between you.  That or it ensures that you never speak again after the trip has finished.

So there are definitely lessons to be learnt from this.  When living in Ethiopia, particularly outside the capital: be prepared for some variations in toilet standards; build up those thigh muscles for the squatting you will have to do; invest in some kind of stick to hold doors closed when you need to; and always, always, always carry your own toilet paper.

Last update on 24 August 2009 11:54:54

 Comments

  • Dannii69
    Dannii69 13 November 2012 07:04:05

    Interesting that you mention this. I work in Sierra Leone and the issue is not so much the absence of toilets or their standards, but rather that you get stuck in the dense traffic of Freetown (a town built to house circa 500,000 to a million but housing today about 2 million people). The roads are so congested and clogged and grid locked that you have to ensure that you take enough water on the road but with a humidity of roughly 75 - 90%, you cannot ignore not to drink water at your own peril.

    This obviously create the need to wee. I have tried to hold it in for long periods of time as it takes you anything from 2.5 hours to 3 hours simply to cover a distance of circa 4km from say Aberdeen or Lumley to the Port of Freetown. The local drivers know most of the short cuts, but still when nature calls particularly after 17:00, you are damned. The best pee experience I had (and I am male) was in a mineral water bottle, yes, a mineral water bottle. We were stuck in traffic, there were no toilets in the vicinity and the only way was to empty the mineral water down my throat, and gingerly but with measured doses, fill the mineral water bottle. I will relish that feeling for aeons to come!

    I wholeheartedly concur with the status of toilets in Ethiopia. I once went to this eatery and a bit of an upset tummy and when I made a beeline for the toilet, discovered that there was no toilet paper. I then made a meal of the entire thing only for the proprietor to tell me I have to get it from the reception. You know that feeling of asking for toilet paper as a man - you don't want others to know what you are going to do with it, right? At any rate, after a bit of probing, the proprietor told me that toilet paper is affirmative auctioned and therefore, they never keep it in the toilets where one would expect it to be in the first place!

  • cutmeout
    cutmeout 07 July 2011 22:58:36

    I am an Ethiopian and I agree with the writer. Toilet conditions in rural areas, even rural small cities(big cities as well)are as bad as you described. No question about that. But this situation shouldnt be compared with the ones in the west. If one is forced to compare then understanding the reasons as to why the toilets are in such a bad conditons is vital. The writer wondered why they cant just clean them. Well, there are a lot of factors here; greedy hotel owners ( as it costs them to maintain the toilets), lack of knowledge in the parts of individuals, poverty, lack of enforcement by govt health officals. I know these are all lame excuses for someone from the west. It is a reallity for us. And the only way out is economic freedom. That however, seems far from sight.

  • Eclipse1
    Eclipse1 09 April 2010 09:38:47

    You exaggerated the situation! I am Ethiopian living in Ethiopia, what you come up with all the words in this article is negative, to say the least. Just people, say the truth but this isn't the only truth.

  • Eclipse1
    Eclipse1 27 March 2010 20:10:28

    Its fact but sometimes instead of giving advice we end up giving, "this is the only fact", I am ethiopian living in ethiopia, lack of ignorance might have caused the problem and proper moniter from the authorities. As hOrnet put his comment, you found such toilets not coz in ur africa, coz of which town, which place you were in. There is everything wat u see here in ur country gud or bad, the difference is the frequency. Just giving the whole lines of words to tell about this toilet problem, I will consider it as good narative writing than, a good advice.

  • hornet
    hornet 21 November 2009 03:52:23

    SO VERY FUNNY AND VERY SAD BUT OH SO TRUE!
    My bad toilet experiences, though not as rough as yours, were at residences.

    The first was on a Sunday at the house of a teammate of a friend that invited me to watch a soccer game. This friend had a WONDERFUL, beautiful family and I fell in love with them and the hospitality they endured to me. The food was so good and they kept affectionately feeding my mouth with thier own hands into my mouth the food. Well, low and behold, I had to GO #2. The house was nice. So I was amazed when they said I had to go outside, I was like, huh? Then this teenage girl takes my elbow and leads me outside to this like, dark tiny shed with the porcelan square tub thing in the ground with the hole in the middle. I said to myself, this would be alright if all I had to do was pee. I've been in the army and have roughed it, so I was O.k. but, like you said in your article, there was no toilet paper. I was too embarrassed to tell them that there was no TP, because I figured, if they went through all of this trouble to show me where the outhouse was, then they had to had known that i would need some TP, so they must not have any, and I just held it in for until we left, some coffee and popcorn episodes later. And then when my friend took me back to my hotel, he wanted to have a serious discussion with me about trying to help his sister in-law get to D.C.. I didn't want to be rude but I told him. "We'll talk later about this but I've got to go".

    I had the same type of situation at this girls house, but at least she had toilet paper.

    And I was in Amsterdam, a place with beautiful architectured buildings and art and saw preppy college type guys taking dumps in the town squares at these iron fence type facilities where the feces was just laying on the top of the grates out in the open, I was disgusted and shocked and appauled and lost such respect for intellect.

  • Bonnie nzania2007@msn.com
    Bonnie nzania2007@msn.com 25 August 2009 10:53:25

    Toilet Training in Tanzania, I have 2 little ones that I have toilet trained here, when your out and about as much as we are, you get creative on the matter. We ended up even carrying our own make shift potty in the car for some occasions, yes life in Africa can be different.

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