Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Growing up, my family considered "SHIT" to be a swear word.
My teachers told me that shit is gross and unacceptable to discuss, and my co-workers were too embarrassed to shit at our workplace.
What my educators never bothered to tell me is that SHIT kills.
''SHIT is like FIRE.
If you manage it properly - it will cook your meal.
If you don't manage it - it will burn down your house.
If you manage shit - it becomes fertilizer.
If you don't manage shit - it will kill you.'' - Jack Sim
In different parts of the world, the lack of access to toilets and sanitation is a huge issue that contributes to more than 700,000 child deaths annually.
2.3 billion people around the world don't have access to basic sanitation.
In fact, more people in the world own a mobile phone than have access to a toilet.
A few months back I was invited by Borda - a German NGO - to travel to Zambia,
to cover a sanitation training they were hosting in the capital, Lusaka, for local workers in the sector.
I had my reservations about going.
I wasn't sure it was a gig for me, I have never covered this subject before.
I got in touch with my friend from Borda and told her about my uncertainty.
She had recommended me for my years of work around the global water crisis and reminded me how sanitation and hygiene are a crucial part of that crisis.
She was right.
Without access to water, people aren't able to use toilets, wash their hands, access proper sanitation, or practice safe hygiene - which in a COVID world remains vitally important.
I realized that my coverage of water had always followed the same thread and that this angle was fundamentally different. It was no longer a rural village in the golden savannah.
It was set in the crowded capital city of Zambia, with poor urban infrastructure and struggling facilities. The setting was different, but the narrative was similar.
Welcome to Lusaka
Lusaka is an impressive capital and one of the fastest developing cities in Africa,
However, access to improved sanitation has fallen over the last 15 years, and most living in low-income communities lack proper sewerage.
The absence of proper water and sanitation creates significantly poor community outcomes, including fewer students attending school, a substantial burden on women, and a decrease in work productivity.
To those of us with easy access to toilets, we don't think about their value much.
We see toilets as a place to relieve ourselves and flush it away, but toilets mean a lot more than that!
They mean health, safety, privacy, and more.
The story of Samson
In every shit story, there are unsung heroes.
In this story, that hero is Samson and his mighty crew of pit latrine emptiers.
They empty the toilet pits and septic tanks in the community; enter inspection holes and sewers to fix or unblock them; then transport the faecal waste to treatment plants,
while maintaining the sanitation facilities.
Residents may be fortunate enough to have pit latrines and septic tanks, but if these aren't emptied regularly, waste flows into the groundwater, contaminating the environment and surrounding water supplies.
Samson and his team leave home every morning to work in conditions most of us couldn't begin to imagine. They understand their part and contribution to the community.
And yet, the response they receive is stigmatized, lowly, and invalid.
But, the importance of this job cannot be understated.
Lives depend on them getting shit done.
Surprisingly, there is a future for this industry of shit. And it's a sustainable one.
Samson and his team collect the faecal matter back at their facility, where they separate all the toxins from the organic foundations.
Recycling of human waste has many benefits. After a treatment process, our shit can become fertilizer.
It could be also used in making bricks and even fuel!
This sustainable future holds strong economic benefits with the potential of re-valuing shit and creating jobs within the community.
Samson and his team represent a small step in the right direction, where communities begin taking responsibility for their lives and their neighbours.
An important step for the people of Lusaka!
Talking about shit matters.
How can anyone solve sanitation issues around the world when we can't even have a conversation about it? This neglected topic, shrouded in taboo, remains a killer in different parts of the world while the answer is inside our shit.
Shushing the topic and flushing it away as we do, is not the solution. If we want to advance and make a change, we should start by giving a shit and managing it.
Borda is a worldwide expert NGO specializing in full-cycle decentralized sanitation.
*The entire film coming out soon