Improved sanitation, the pride of a home

Refugee settlements often last decades and are a home to thousands. Providing suitable and sustainable sanitation solutions is regarded as one of the essential components of promoting public health in these settlements. Within Kyaka II Refugee Settlement in Kyegegwa District, Oxfam has continued to encourage and facilitate the construction of household pit latrines to ensure proper excreta disposal. This has been done through distribution of pit excavation tools, super structure construction poles, nails, tarpaulin, and door shutters. According to the sanitation ladder, pit latrines are considered to be cheap and easy to build thus being the most common, feasible sanitation solution in Uganda.

However, setting up pit latrines has been found to be difficult especially in areas with a high water table, unstable soils and rocks. To address such challenges, new technical designs of toilets like Urine Diversion Dry Toilets (UDDTs) have come in. Unlike pit latrines, UDDTs offer flexibility while being used and emptied.

UDDTs are a well-established technology in which the toilet interface has separate holes for urine and faeces. There are two chambers for the faeces – one of which is in use whilst the other is full with faeces drying inside. The urine is disposed of separately, either by capture in a storage container and periodic disposal or by infiltration into the ground around the toilet. Refugees like Elizabeth have used it and recount their experience.

Elizabeth Nyirarukundo, a 30-year-old mother of five, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2018. She feared for her family’s life after witnessing several incidents of kidnap and murder in her country. With her husband and four children, Elizabeth walked for two days to the Uganda border. The family survived by begging from the people they met on the way. At the border, they were received at Nyakabadde Refugee Transit Camp where they stayed for two weeks. They were then relocated to Kyaka II Refugee Settlement where they lived at the reception centre for a month before being given a plot of land. “Starting a living on a plain piece of land with only a few household items like jerrycans, basins and tarpaulin was challenging,” said Elizabeth.

Like any other family, Elizabeth’s pitched a tent using sticks and tarpaulin in the land that they were given but did not have other household facilities like kitchen, bath shelter and a latrine. Regardless, nature will always require you to improvise and Elizabeth was not any different. She improvised to ensure all facilities were present for her family. Using an old iron sheet for a kitchen, papyrus reeds to set up a bath shelter, and a latrine was tricky. Her only option was using the already existing communal latrines that were far from home. For the children it was difficult, so they resorted to the cat method. This is a practice where an individual digs a small hole defecates and thereafter covers the feaces with soil.

Through the Village Health Teams (VHTs), however, each household was encouraged to construct a latrine. The VHTs, together with Oxfam staff, sensitized the refugees on how to excavate pits and set up latrine super structures. They also provided excavation tools. One of the requirements for this household latrine was to excavate a circular pit at least 300 centimetres deep and 70 centimetres wide. “My husband was ill at the time so I sought help from two men who were our neighbours at a cost of 10,000 shillings,” Elizabeth said. Hardly had they excavated 100 centimetres deep than they found a rock. They could not refund the money and neither could they continue the excavation. “Worse, I was no longer eligible to receive the latrine construction materials because my pit was not 300 centimetres deep. I gave up on ever having a latrine of my own.”

Towards the end of 2019, Elizabeth was approached by Oxfam staff who told her about constructing a new type of toilet near her house to be used by the families within the area. In June 2020, the toilets were completed and handed over to the community. “I was happy because at last I had a toilet near my house. This made my home a complete model home,” she said.

Elizabeth’s story does not differ from what other community members say about the new type of toilet. The toilet is easy to use and keep clean because all one does is pour ash in one of the vaults. Having a toilet is a pride of a home because it is essential in maintaining household sanitation and hygiene to prevent diseases.

However, Elizabeth has some concerns. She said the tarpaulin wears out making the toilets less private. Increasing the number of stances and separation basing on gender compared to a two-vault toilet used by both male and female would favour all community members. From observation of the toilets, both vaults were filled and not covered because the community members used them concurrently. The tarpaulin surrounding the structures was torn. This kept me thinking how does a sanitation solution so good, much needed and appreciated by the community end up mis-used? We need to reflect on this.