To the ends of the earth…
Toilet Twinning’s CEO Lorraine Kingsley travels to the top of the world (almost) to meet a man whose loo has changed his entire village.
We negotiate six river-bed crossings, countless potholes and a gazillion hairpin bends during the four-hour drive from Kathmandu… then suddenly the village of Talakhu swings into view.
Perched among the sweeping foothills of the Himalayas, it looks out on lush lime-green terraces of wheat, maize and rice snaking up the steep hillsides.
It’s getting late so we retire to our overnight accommodation, which is a bed in a corrugated iron lean-to attached to the side of a home. The shower is cold water in a bucket, in a communal area outdoors.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of sweet tea and omelette, we set off across more river beds and potholes to reach a simple homestead about an hour away.
Here, a grandfather sits on a rattan mat on his terracotta-coloured verandah, with his three-year-old grandson on his knee. The little boy laughs at his grandfather’s whispers.
Kancha, who’s 52, knows why we have come. He points proudly to his concrete latrine: the first one to be built in the village.
Like his neighbours, he learnt about the link between sanitation and health when Toilet Twinning’s partner started working in Risthabot three years ago.
Kancha is now a member of an association that has brought clean drinking water to the village and ended the daily trek to the polluted stream for water. Reaping the benefits of good health, he and his wife, Shaili, work side by side on their land, harvesting wheat and maize, and tending to the cauliflowers, cabbages, onions and garlic in their vegetable garden.
Their life seems appealingly simple, even successful. But there’s a sobering back story.
Kancha starts to tell us about the two children he lost. He believes they’d still be alive today if he’d learnt 20 years ago about the link between open defecation and diarrhoeal diseases.
And then it hits you. Kancha is among the millions of parents who experience the terrible reality of that stark sanitation statistic: every minute, three children under the age of five die from diarrhoea-related diseases.
‘We used to use the corner of our land or the nearby stream for defecation,’ he says. ‘Before, there were flies all around and my family were sick all the time.
‘Our five-year-old daughter died of dysentery. And then, in the same year, we lost our three-year-old son after he had diarrhoea for a week. We didn’t know about health and sanitation at that time.
‘But [Toilet Twinning’s partner] taught us about the importance of building a toilet. Since then, we can go two or three months, or even six months, without a single instance of diarrhoea.’
Kancha built his toilet two years ago, for a cost of 52,000 rupees (about £320), thanks to a loan from his relatives. He carried all the stones and dug the pit himself – to keep costs down – but still needed the loan to pay for pipes, roofing and cement, and for a local labourer to help him build the walls.
Inspired, 11 other households in the village have followed suit and built their own latrine. Gradually, the health of the whole village is improving.
The benefits they are enjoying now only underline the price they used to pay for poor sanitation.
Before, Kancha and Shaili were so often sick that their land would lie fallow. All their money went on medicines and healthcare. On two occasions, they were only able to harvest half their crops, because they were too ill to get out of bed. They had to take out loans to buy food – loans that took two or three years to repay.
There was fallout for the three elder children’s education too; none went to secondary school. ‘Every month, my children would miss at least a week of school,’ says Kancha. One of his grown-up sons lives at home and helps with the farming; his two oldest children work in the city as taxi drivers.
But Kancha’s youngest son, who’s 18, and his only daughter, who’s 16, are still at school – in year 12 and year ten respectively. He dreams big for these two. He hopes that improving heath will bring better job opportunities, and the chance to break free of the poverty that has dogged the family for generations.
‘I think it is possible for my children to have a prosperous and happy life, as they know how to keep their environment clean and healthy,’ says Kancha. ‘With this knowledge, I do not think they will have to endure the difficulties that Shaili and I have encountered.’