THE CONCEPT of free public toilets in urban areas was put in place to fullfil a basic human right which in most towns has unfortunately suffered a slow, but sure death due to a combination of factors.
By Phyllis Mbanje
The current state of most public toilets dotted around the city of Harare is testimony to the fact that the “free” service is literally dead, presenting serious challenges to the multitudes of people that walk the streets on a daily basis.
It has become common knowledge that public toilets — mostly in the central business district (CBD) — should be avoided at all costs unless the call of nature becomes an emergency.
The sight of rancid, overflowing raw human waste that stretches from the toilet door leading to the squat holes in the poorly lit toilets was a common feature at most of the facilities visited by The Standard last week.
Venturing into one of these requires a lot of “bravery” and tact as the dark corners harbour all sorts of filth dumped there in the cover of dark interiors.
For years, the Harare City Council has battled to keep these toilets in a decent condition, but this has obviously failed, judging by the deplorable state of the free public toilets.
Most of these facilities are now usually used by street kids, vendors, commuter omnibus operators, and other people that are on the streets throughout the day because of the nature of their business.
Refurbishment of the toilets has been on the cards for a long time, but apparently the resources to do this have remained elusive.
As the urban population increased over the years, the pressure on these facilities has grown to a point where even constant cleaning has been overwhelmed by non-stop demand for their use.
Our investigations also established that general hygiene attitudes of people have gone down.
The dirtiest ablution facilities that were witnessed by The Standard were those around bus terminuses like Copacabana, Fourth Street, Market Square and at the Charge office. These are mostly used by commuters, vendors and shoppers.
At times commuter bus operators, especially males, end up relieving themselves outside the toilets, avoiding going inside in case they wade into human waste. Vendors with small children also help their kids to relieve themselves at the entrances of the public toilets, making it more difficult to even attempt to get inside.
A survey done by one Lernad Kamwendo for a human rights and civic education organisation, Kubatana, last year revealed that at Market Square over 500 people used a single toilet which has no flushing system.
At Copacabana close to 600 people were said to access the toilet, where more than 40 vendors do business at the taxi rank.
“Vendors collect water for their business from the toilet. [There is)] no flushing facility for the toilets. The facility is only cleaned in the morning. [There are] no doors on cubicles,” reads part of the 2014 survey.
The squat toilets get messy quickly as many people, especially children, avoid using them, opting to relieve themselves on the floor, or along the walls of the toilet.
Harare City Council spokesperson, Michael Chideme says the public should play their part in keeping available facilities clean.
“Yes, the toilets are overwhelmed because of the growing population, but the public should do their part and use them in the expected manner,” he said.
Currently there are 90 public toilets in central Harare and although council says 88 are working, most of them have no running water, especially those that offer free services.
“We are inviting private investors who want to partner with us to come and build toilets, especially at the new designated vending areas and then recover their money through pay-service facilities,” Chideme said.
Unlike the free public toilets, those that are paid for are in a better condition and when there is no running water alternative sources are provided.
Meanwhile, touts and street children have found a way out of visiting the filthy toilets. They have resorted to relieving themselves in empty bottles which they throw away after they are done.
It appears toilet filth may not entirely be an issue of limited facilities, but one of hygiene attitudes. Needless to say, issues like hand-washing after toilet use are not being observed at all in urban toilets.
“The issue of attitudes is one area that we are looking at addressing by raising awareness in the community on issues like handwashing,” said a communication specialist with United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), Elizabeth Mupfumira.
Under their WASH programme, the organisation has facilitated introduction of health promotion clubs at schools to ensure that pupils learn proper hygiene practices that are key in preventing diseases like cholera and typhoid, which thrive under such conditions.
Health director for Harare City, Prosper Chonzi said the erratic water supply is a big challenge.
“High standards of hygiene are required when there is limited water supply, like is the case right now, if we are to manage outbreaks of water-borne diseases like cholera,” he said.
Although open defecation is reported to be practised mostly in rural areas, the undesirable practice has also crept into urban dwellings, especially in the absence of running water.
A visit by The Standard to peri-urban settlements like Hopley Farm at the southern periphery of the capital revealed that while some people had constructed pit toilets. Others have resorted to the bush system to relieve themselves due to lack of water.