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A life-changing, life-saving toilet

Photo: Perou/Oxfam

By Amy Christian, Communications Coordinator, Oxfam.

In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, almost two million people live in informal settlements or ‘slums’. Water and sanitation facilities are completely inadequate, disease rates are high and poverty is rife. Amy Christian travelled to the Mukuru slum in Kenya and discovered how one innovative toilet is saving lives — and changing them for the better.

When I went to primary school, we had plenty of toilets. Rows of cubicles stocked with toilet paper. There were mirrors on the opposite wall next to little basins just high enough for us to reach. We didn’t have to worry about getting sick and the words cholera and typhoid were completely unknown to me.

Before Fresh Life toilets were brought to Reuben Baptist primary school in Mukuru, the students used a pit latrine. It used to get so dirty that the children got sick. They suffered from diarrhea, cholera and typhoid. But things are very different now.

Fresh Life toilets keep disease at bay and sends kids to school

Winifred is the headteacher of Reuben Baptist primary school in Mukuru, Kenya. We sat together in the schoolyard on two wooden classroom chairs. It was late afternoon and the youngest of the children were piling out of class and making their way home. The older children edged further forward to see what we were up to. Every twenty seconds Winifred gave them a look and they took three steps backwards.

“Go and play” she coaxed them with a smile.

I asked her about running the Rueben Baptist primary School. What motivated her? What were her hopes for the children? Why did she want to be a teacher? Her answers come quick and sure. She knew what she wanted to tell me. And as she told me how she has dedicated her life to the children living in Mukuru, her hands flew through the air, picking up pace as her enthusiasm grew.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. As soon as I left school I started working here teaching Maths and now I am the head teacher. I love the children. I push them hard in class so that they succeed and pass their exams. I love playing with them too and making jokes with them every day. I am like a big child myself,” she laughed.

Winifred teaches a class at Reuben Baptist School. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Winifred teaches a class at Reuben Baptist School. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

As I spoke to Winifred, she told that the biggest problem at the school was lack of sanitation. “I tried to get a toilet installed because the pit latrine we had was making the children sick. They had diarrhea, cholera and typhoid because the toilets were so dirty. I couldn’t get anyone to help me though and so I started to consider closing the school. I hated seeing the children get so sick.”

I could see the anguish in Winifred’s eyes. I wondered what it must have been like for her to think about closing the school she had dedicated her whole life to. To lose the children she loved so much.

To the left of where Winifred sat I could see the old pit latrine. Its corrugated iron sheets precariously tacked together and lined along the bottom with big stones. It didn’t look very safe, let alone clean.

Fresh Life toilets provides local jobs.

The Rueben Baptist primary school is one of ten schools in Mukuru that have been selected to receive Oxfam funded Fresh life toilets provided by pioneer, Sanergy. The innovative toilets are constructed without a pit and operate as part of a wider business within the community.

The original model offers the toilets to the community as a business investment. Community members can group together to receive an interest free grant to buy the toilet. It is then built at Sanergy’s manufacturing plant and delivered to the new owners. After installation, owners receive business and marketing training as well as health and sanitation training.

Fresh Life toilet Sanergy workers. Photo: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam
Sanergy employees at work. Photo: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam

They are given a ‘goody bag’ containing all necessary cleaning items to keep the toilet in tiptop condition. Toilet owners then operate the toilet as a business, charging between 3 and 5 Kenyan shillings per use.

Waste collectors pick up containers from inside the toilets every two hours, taking it back to Sanergy’s processing plant where it is slowly turned into fertilizer and sold to local farms.

“Our lives have changed since we received the Fresh Life toilets”.

The Fresh Life toilets in schools are free for the children to use and are helping create a clean and healthy environment for the children to work and play in, while also teaching them the importance of hand washing and general health and cleanliness. Winifred’s school received two Fresh Life toilets seven months ago and everyone raves about the benefits they have bought.

“Our lives have changed since we received the Fresh Life toilets. The children don’t get sick anymore and they even come to school early so they can use the toilets before classes begin. I used to have just 200 pupils here and now I have over 400. Every parent comes to me and asks if their child can come to school here because they’ve heard we have the Fresh Life toilets”. Winifred cannot praise the toilets enough.

Photo: Allan Gichigi Oxfam
Yusra, 14. School attendance has increased dramatically since Fresh Life toilets were introduced. Photo: Allan Gichigi Oxfam

She later went on to tell me that she has bought a Fresh Life toilet for her home so that her family can enjoy the same benefits:

“Having the Fresh Life toilets has lifted the spirits of the community and made our lives better.”