Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Give Us This Day Our Daily Toilet

Kibera. The biggest slum in Kenya. Second biggest in all of Africa.

From all over Kenya, they pour into this place, a sprawling community in southeast Nairobi, home to as many as one million living souls. Many come here from family farm plots that have become too small from subdivision; others are driven off the land by failing rains, extreme floods and erratic seasonal patterns; some are the victims of soil depletion from unsustainable farming practices. Whatever the reason, they are here looking for a better life.

Kibera: Last stop in Kenya's urban migration
A better life? It’s hard for me to imagine what a worse life might look like. An uncountable throng in a continuous stream up and down muddy alleys, paths and narrow clay-red streets; unbroken ranks of tin and mud shacks crowding against each other and squeezing into serpentine pathways; vendors selling plastic sandals, maize, charcoal or other essentials at virtually every hut; open cooking fires everywhere; trash mixed with mud and sewage underfoot; and the air above choked with acrid smoke.

And what am I doing here? I’m the only mzungu in sight among thousands and thousands of residents going about their daily routines – my alien skin and gray hair a neon presence amidst an ocean of beautiful African humanity. I am accompanied by Rahab Mbochi, an irrepressibly cheerful spirit, who finds friends at virtually every turn in the winding alleys of mud and waste. And by David Quest, another Kenyan working with a waste-management NGO.  And – of supreme importance – by Jeshua, our giant local guide and keeper, a guarantor of safety for a helpless outsider like me.

Tin and trash: the constants of life in Kibera
Think of the names: Rahab, the redeemed harlot whose progeny includes the one called Savior by Christians; David, the man after God’s heart; Jeshua, the real name of Jesus of Nazareth; and even John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. All winding our way into the heart of the largest – and perhaps foulest – slum in East Africa. Rahab confidently strides out in front. The stranger makes sure he stays within reach of Jeshua.

Did I mention what I’m doing here? Primarily, to visit Peepoople. That’s Pee-poop-le. Pee, as in pee. Poop, you know. Add the last syllable, and I imagine you’ve got something like this:  “The people who have devised a way to help deal with all this filth you live in.”  And it’s brilliant. Let me explain.

Kibera has no sewage disposal system. The huts have no toilets; the roads have no drains. Imagine a city of maybe a million tightly-packed people, all looking desperately for somewhere to go. Of course, they do go. People use a small tin bucket, and dispose of the waste outside, where it finds its way into the grayish-brown rivulets that trickle down every path and alleyway. This isn’t just where we’re walking; this is where the children play. Admittedly, there are a few toilet stations here and there, but they cost five shillings – about six cents U.S. – and money is oh-so-scarce here.

Children and sewage don't mix
And – if you’ve resisted the impulse to stop reading in disgust – there’s another thing: At night, it’s unsafe to step out of the hut. So the waste is collected in plastic bags which get hurled into the black sky – Kibera’s infamous “flying toilets.”

America’s attention was riveted a couple of months ago by the ordeal of a stricken cruise ship whose passengers had to make it a week or so without working toilets. I’m afraid Kibera is like a thousand of those ships, with no port anywhere in sight.

And that’s where Peepoople comes in. They have developed an ingenious solution. It’s a waterproof single-use bag made of a compostable organic material, with a bit of granulated urea inside. The bag – a PeePoo bag – is placed like a liner inside a small plastic pail, which together form a sanitary toilet. After use, the bag is tied off in a tight seal enclosing everything, including soiled tissue, and the urea goes to work destroying the pathogens by which human waste spreads so much disease. The used bags are returned to collection centers, where they are composted to provide fertile garden soils and to grow trees.

PeePoo bag ready to return for composting
And for most of Kibera’s people, the cost isn’t overwhelming. The Peepoo bag costs two shillings. But upon return to the collection station, the user gets a one-shilling refund.  So the overall cost per use is just a little more than a U.S. penny. In the bargain, streams of sewage are reduced, potentially lethal pathogens are destroyed, and fertile soils are developed for local gardens.

Now, solutions to vexing problems are seldom as simple as they sometimes sound. Peepoople is in its infancy. Adoption rates are still low in Kibera. There are five or six collection stations, and Kibera needs hundreds. Composting and pathogen testing is ongoing, before Kenyan authorities will permit compost use in sensitive areas.

But Kibera today is a picture of much of the world tomorrow. We know that climate disruptions are driving a tsunami of human migration, as farming systems stagger under the burden of unseen challenges like today’s extreme weather events. Whether in Karachi, Johannesburg, Dhaka, Bangkok or Los Angeles, cities will have to deal with an influx of migrants struggling to survive and unable to afford basic services like clean, safe sewage systems.

Peepoople's Rahab Mbochi, with Japheth
Hats off to Peepoople, to Rahab, to Jeshua, and to the thousands of Kiberans working to provide basic human services where none exist today. If you’d like to learn more about Peepoople, take a look here. And if you’re ever in the neighborhood of Good Hand Farm, and feeling really adventurous, I’ve bought fifty Peepoo bags, and would be glad to share one with you. If you bring it back after use, it’ll only set you back one Kenyan shilling.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood 


  1. have i mentioned how you're totally my hero? :)

  2. Note to readers: This "hero" comment comes from a woman who has helped Kids v. Global Warming file suit against about half of the states in the Union to force them to act to protect our children against climate pollution. There are real heroes out there. Today, let me nominate Rahab Mbochi, and even Victoria Loorz.