How toilets are restoring dignity and hope in the DRC

Simple latrines mean safety and dignity for women like Bawili and Ebinda in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Toilet Twinning’s CEO Lorraine Kingsley discovered.

Ebinda was 14 when she was attacked. It was early evening – about 6pm – and she had gone into the bush to relieve herself. It was not yet dark so her mum, Bawili, allowed her to go out alone.

But as Ebinda crouched down, someone grabbed her neck. She doesn’t know how many of them there were: she couldn’t see them. They pushed her to the ground.

Bawili saw the bruises and scratching around Ebinda’s neck as soon as she ran in, crying. She knew instantly what had happened.

The Médecins Sans Frontières doctors who treated Ebinda observed that, if she’d had a proper toilet at home, the attack would never have happened.

Ebinda, with her mother, Bawili

Meet Bawili and Ebinda for yourself: watch our Big Relief film

But Bawili couldn’t afford to build a toilet. Her husband was shot dead during the civil war insurgency in the 1990s, and the remaining family fled as refugees to Tanzania. When the Tanzanian refugee camp was closed down in 2008, they were sent to South Kivu province, eastern Congo, to start again.

They had nothing and there was nothing for them in Mwandiga village. No water, no sanitation, no home.

They could only afford one jerry can, so Ebinda would make three journeys a day to the lake for water. It was a 90-minute round trip. Each journey put her at risk of being attacked. Each jerry can of dirty lake water put the family’s health at risk.

A few months after they settled in Mwandiga, Ebinda was bitten by a snake as she crouched in the bush – and the hospital didn’t have any antivenom serum. She says she has felt weak ever since.

A few months after that, the brutal attack happened. Ebinda fell pregnant and left school as a result: her son is now six. She told us that she hasn’t felt truly happy since the attack.

Bawili believes that if her husband had still been alive, he would have had the strength to build them a toilet.

And yet, this family – despite their deep poverty – spent three days with us, opened up their home to us, laughed with us and shared their story with grace and poise.

Toilet Twinning helps fund the water and sanitation programme of Tearfund, and when Tearfund first set up Community Health Clubs in the Mwandiga area in 2012, Bawili was among the first to join. She never missed a meeting; she always arrived first.

When the group voted in their first president, Bawili was the obvious choice. She encouraged villagers to build their own toilet, one by one – even though she wasn’t able to build one herself. ‘Don’t look at me,’ she’d say. ‘I can’t afford a toilet but you must do this for your family’s health and safety.’

So the group voted unanimously to build Bawili a toilet. A year ago, members gathered materials and dug it together. Bawili brought the water each day and helped make the bricks.

Now her toilet is her pride and joy. ‘My toilet brings us freedom, privacy and dignity as a family. We used to feel shame when we had people visit us and we didn’t have a toilet for them to use. People would shout abuse at us as we walked to the bush. I am so thankful and so happy to have a toilet. It is a big relief.’

Bawili (centre), with her family and their toilet

Now, when the Community Health Club meets under the trees each Sunday, the members open with a song they have written themselves:

‘Community, we must build a toilet

Community, we must have a bathroom

Community, we must wash our hands with soap or ash

Community, we must have a rubbish pit

To protect our health.’

Listen to Mwandiga’s Community Health Club’s toilet song

During our time in Mwandiga, we would get many impromptu renditions of the song as the children crowding around us would start to sing.

DRC remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. There is no infrastructure, no rule of law. There are fears that President Joseph Kabila may call off the elections scheduled for November. If he does, civil war may follow.

And yet, there is hope. You can see it and touch it in Mwandiga.

The community have come together, learnt together and discovered that they have the power to improve life for their families. They don’t need to wait for the government to act. They don’t sit around, hoping that another NGO might turn up to build a school, or hand out food.

As members of a Community Health Club, they can all see what happens when they take charge of their families’ futures. They all talk about feeling safer, and having less disease now.

And they all talk about the day they built their toilet – and restored dignity to their household.

They may not know what the future holds. But they believe it will be better than their past. Their toilets are an important first step in the right direction.

Meet Bawili and Ebinda for yourself: watch our Big Relief film 

And why not plan your do for a loo for World Toilet Day on November 19?