I've spent the past week on the road north of Bamako around Kita, Segou and Mopti. It's been an interesting trip so far. Filming emergency or humanitarian and development projects has its moments. You could find yourself observing clearance of landmines; flying low over vast tracts of spectacular jungle; meeting people with incredible stories to tell; or, as I'm faced with on this assignment in Mali, trying to figure out how to best film projects involving clean water but also... shit, poo, faeces, caca, excrement... Whatever you want to call it, something that no one likes talking about.
In development circles you'll often hear the acronym WASH which refers to water, sanitation and hygiene. And water projects usually shine in the media spotlight. Everyone understands the need for clean water. People feel good about clean water. But sanitation is another matter. And I must admit I've seen more than my fair share of open sewers or filthy toilets and latrines around the world. Some unspeakable places come to mind (and sadly too many in schools I might add) that have required mustering all of my rather feeble courage to simply poke my head around the corner long enough to verify what people tell me is well... just plain wrong and needs fixing.
So it was somewhat with raised eyebrows that I read about a programme here in Mali that introduced a new development acronym to me - CLTS, or in development parlance, "community led total sanitation". This also involves another acronym - OD, standing for open defecation. Are you still with me? According to figures from WHO and UNICEF, 2.6 billion people, or 39 per cent of the world’s population, live without access to improved sanitation. Something to think about next time you go to the toilet, and wash your hands. Guardian Global Health blogger, Sarah Boseley, has a good post on progress towards achieving water and sanitation MDG's too.
Over the past week I've been talking with people from small rural communities who are participating in a CLTS program led by Plan and UNICEF Mali. You can read more about this approach to sanitation in Mali here, but in a nutshell, people are gathered together to talk about sanitation in their village. Sometimes a griot, a traditional Malian storyteller, will be involved - someone who can help to get people talking. Out comes a plate of food to share. Everyone takes a little bit to eat and the plate is placed on the ground. Meanwhile, there's been an open defecation hunt, and lo, a poo is found and placed near the plate of food.
It's deliberately confronting but a little experiment takes place. Flies that were feasting on the food move over to the poo, and as flies are want to do, fly from the poo back to the food. Program trainers say at that point someone usually yells out: "we're eating our own caca". There's often a reaction of shame or disgust and as you can imagine a lot of debate follows. People talk about what's actually happening in their village, their cultural practices or traditions and the potential health benefits of stopping open defecation, particularly diarrhea related illness, building covered latrines, having access to clean water, and importantly, having the means to wash their hands properly with soap or ash. This is part of what trainers call the triggering process.
Balla Moussa Sidybe, the mayor of a commune near Kita, told me the reaction in his home village Dafela was instant. In his eyes, people were jolted into doing something immediately about building better latrines, as pictured above, and improving village sanitation. And here's where the programme attempts to be "community led". Through the whole CLTS process, the communities themselves determine the number of latrines they need, the locations and work out how they will build them with locally available materials. It's very much a grassroots approach.
In several villages I visited, I spoke with people who were busy digging new latrines. The father and son team below were hard at work in the blazing sun building a new family latrine the day after a CLTS workshop. A lot of people said they saw the need for change in their village.
The test of course comes later if villages can be declared "open defecation free" and if it's sustainable. That's the CLTS goal. The achievment of being open defecation free is recognised with a local ceremony and as one village elder near Mopti put to me: "We didn't do it for anyone else, we did it for ourselves."
In 2009, 48 communities in Mali were declared open defecation free, benefiting around 95,000 people. The target for 2010 is bring 200 communities to open defecation free status, benefiting 280,000 people.