Fecal Sludge Sourcing Series: The Forgotten Public Health Heroes

At 10:00 pm, we arrive in Chaani, an informal settlement by Mombasa’s airport, a small area of no man’s land that is home to over 28,000 people.  As we step off the matatu, we are greeted warmly by one of Chaani’s Village Elders. We walk through unpaved roads and narrow corridors until we arrive at a compound the size of my living room, but home to 4 families.  At one corner, there is a toilet waiting to be emptied. The elder warns us that we must wait until everyone falls asleep before the dirty work can begin. 

We walk to the edge of the compound where the toilet is to be emptied. A group of three men are sitting and smoking cigarettes, a freshly dug hole in the middle of the unpaved roadside. Tonight’s work will be emptying the contents of a pit latrine into this new hole, shifting infectious human feces from one area to another.  

The three men greet us and we explain to them what we are doing. We want to understand how waste is managed outside the sewer systems we take for granted. In Kenya, these men are called churas, Swahili for frog, a despised animal amongst Kenyans.  In the late hours of the night, they descend into festering depths of waste in order to separate people from their contagious excreta. The head of the group goes by Safari. He explains the process – break the cement slab, empty the pit sludge, and place it in a new hole in the community. Then he shows his tools: three plastic buckets, a rope to hoist a man down to empty the tough “bottom sludge”, a pick axe to break the slab, and a kerosene lamp made from an old coca cola can. 

Mombasa is home to over 500,000 slum dwellers whose main form of sanitation is pit latrines.  Often not more sophisticated than a hole in the ground, these latrines stink, fester, and flood when it rains. When the pits fill, churas are hired to dive inside the pits and empty the contents. Then they dump the wastes at a convenient location nearby—usually a pit dug in the community or a nearby local stream. 

At 12:00 am the work is commenced with a sound of a pick axe. I walk back to the toilet to see what’s going on but I am shooed away by the lead emptier. “Hold on madam.” He has to take his “medicine” – marijuana and alcohol to ease the dreadful stench. After a moment, he allows me to walk back to the toilet. One man is submerged in the pit, Rasta they call him because of his dreaded hair. He is naked and chest deep in the sludge, emptying the contents with his bare hands. At the end of the night, he will get KSH 800, the equivalent of USD 9. 

Safari feeds Rasta sips of a local palm liquor. He puts a cigarette in Rasta’s mouth and lights it for him to smoke as he continues his work. Rasta puts feces into buckets with his bare hands. Another man comes and picks up that bucket and dumps the feces into the ditch outside. They work through the stench, through the festering solids, through the pieces of trash and broken glass with no tools, no gloves, and a dim glow of a kerosene lamp.  And they do this from dark to dawn. 

In the western world, when our toilet overflows, we can call Joe the Plumber and he’ll come over do his work and receive a sizeable paycheck for his services. But for the world’s 1.77 billion latrine users, these services are performed by the heroes of urban civilization who are stigmatized for performing a necessary but dirty service to society. 

Latrines were designed to separate humans from their contagious wastes. This should not come at the expense of those who service them.