The night soil business must stop

Fri, 18 Jan 2008 Source: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka


The issue of Waste Management is big! Bigger than you and me! I continue to toss and turn about this major challenge that impinges on us. It does not take much to unearth the ugly truth that we don’t have any substantive plan to deal with waste in any shape or form. If you’ve seen effective waste management firsthand, I won’t have to convince you that we are light years behind. But we can start now and make up some ground if we commit ourselves. Almost every region in Ghana has this troubling problem. And it is going to get worse, especially in the urban areas, as the population balloons. And if tourism is our meal ticket, so says Jake, we must roll our angling sleeves and get to work. But to work, we need a plan. And to get a plan that heads in the right direction, we need able and competent leadership. So, this cackling call is for able leadership on this issue. As a swipe, and on a lighter note, I welcome a ministry of Waste Management. Heck, we have a ministry for everything so why not get one for an issue that has serious and crippling consequences if not dealt with effectively? Personal waste, commercial waste, solid waste, liquid waste, and hazardous waste all continue to be treated casually and often recklessly with crippling consequences guaranteed. Yet, we are talking about going nuclear! Talk is cheap indeed!

It is not unusual to see big multi-room houses with one or no toilets at all in Ghana. If there is a toilet, it is often reserved for the owner and under lock and key. Individuals selling in kiosks and other wooden appendages store a fresh supply of black polythene bags (wisely called “Wiase ye sum” --- The world is dark) which serve as chamber pots or latrines. Some just flat out squat over the edge of the nearest gutter and ease themselves. Necessity must truly be the mother of invention for no parent will deliberately teach a child to defecate in a rubber bag, squat precariously on the edge of fault line gutters and engage mischievously in the fine art of throwing “fecal Discus” with tightly wrapped feces in a black bag. Walking around Accra or any city in Ghana with or without an upset stomach can be tricky. For some reason, we don’t seem to take waste disposal seriously in our planning, if we plan at all. This goes for houses, industry, market place, roads, hospitals, garages, restaurants, community investments and others. How can these city planners justify their pay? What about the enforcement authorities too?

In areas where there are beaches, people use the sea as their giant toilet. I am not sure what happens to industrial waste and how it is handled. I know there are no enforcement regimes to make sure that people engage in industrial practices that protect the environment and their health. So, a visit to the wayside fitter for example, will expose you to oil spills on the bare floor, clogged oil gutters and a swirl of filth flying all over the place. Recently, a lawyer is reported to have sued the authorities to stop human beings from carrying night soil on their heads for a living. As if that was not enough, a news report followed with the disturbing revelation that prisoners in handcuffs are made to carry their own human waste. A judge in Cape Coast I believe, is so irate with this practice and has warned the authorities to stop the madness. Hopefully the president can issue an executive order stopping this madness throughout the country. I mean how can we claim a level of civility if we carry shit on our heads for a living and ask people in handcuffs to carry their own feces? When did this practice start and why is it continuing? If this is what we see on the outside, what is going on in our prisons? No wonder our prisons have become death traps addled by all kinds of diseases instead playing the role of reformatories.

Then this real whooping challenge! The practice of hiding a chamber pot (“Kuraba” (Akan) or “Shamor kpulu” (Ga)) under one’s bed to collect urine and whatever filth we care to add. God forbid that you run into someone hauling this aged, potent and odiously flavored cargo across the room or compound, bright and early in the morning. Could it ruin your day or induce a cough or two? Often we look the other way, huh? This practice may have worked in the past but is it not time to retire it? Why are we continuing this practice in this day and age? Indeed some even use these same chamber pot to administer traditional medicine in the privacy of their homes. Why can’t we change these practices? Is this the best we can do? Are we not capable of applying knowledge to our situation? Are we change averse? What will it take to get a leader with a vision to help mandate the end of these challenges? Yes, individuals must act responsibly but a leader in a power diffuse and hierarchical culture like ours, must help set expectations, channel resources and induce effort. We often worry about grandiose issues like going nuclear when these telling and matured warts, manageable if handled correctly, continue to linger. If President Kennedy had a dream to go to the moon in ten years, and did accomplish it, can we set up a dream of ending the use of chamber pots and carrying of human feces in 5-10 years? Which is harder, going to the moon or doing away with chamber pots? Bill Gates had a dream of putting a PC in every house and he did so. Why can’t a whole nation tackle this issue and accomplish it? Is this too much to ask for? Can we for once say, YES WE CAN? Si se puede?

The simple reason why we carry human excreta and horde urine overnight is the lack of a sewer network or system. We need a networked waste management system nationally, with hubs in every region. The sea is tired of being the involuntary sole waste processing center in the coastal areas. Enough of the free range defecating! Let’s turn these beach fronts into the jewels that they can be. If that sea could talk, I bet it will have a few cuss words for us. I don’t know what goes on in the hinterlands but it must be equally troubling. Some of the stories we’ve read and heard about human waste problems in the hinterland calls for action. As the population explodes, it will become practically impossible to continue with these sickening practices. A country without a viable health insurance system must look seriously at preventative health practices. Waste management is part of any viable healthcare system. Waste management has health, economic and environmental implications. And this means that hygiene should be on top of our list. With good hygiene comes good health. And to get good hygiene, we need a waste management system for both personal and industrial use. I am talking about a real sturdy system not some lose pieces and bits in the form of crony addled business contracts that leads to nowhere. This system must not only be in place but be enforced to the extent of etching it in our souls. Of course, a system is as good as the people that run and use it. Therefore, with systems come behavioral changes. We all need to work on changing our waste disposal behaviors and bring others along. We must inform, encourage, and bring everyone along on this journey. The use of mass education and town hall meetings can help. Pep rallies before volunteer work should be laced with such information. Of course these so called leaders must model positive waste management behaviors. An effective reward system to reinforce desired behaviors will also go a long way.

To put in place a viable waste management system, we must benchmark similar countries with viable waste systems. Eventually, we must come up with something that we can finance and sustain locally. Secondly, we must invest heavily into waste management. And waste management is not cheap. This means that we should have a solid in flow of use-revenue to support the system. People must pay for the management of the waste they create. It will also require being smart with the revenue so collected and building checks and balances into the system to avert corrupt practices. Thirdly, we have to fund institutions of learning to start building capacity in the area of waste management immediately. This should include building skills, experience and knowledge, as well as research. Internships in the area of waste management should not be hard to find. There are all kinds of environmentally friendly technologies like using bacteria or maggots to decompose waste for farming purposes. The area of waste management is beaming with ideas and now is the time to jump on the bang wagon. We can innovate and blaze the trail in this area if we put our nose to the grind stone.

Lastly, we need leadership in this area. We need a champion to set goals (plan) and lead our people to accomplish them. Yes, we surely can, if we put our minds and brawn to it. What is wrong with having waste processing centers in all the regions? What is wrong with having a leader say that in 5-10 years, no Ghanaian will carry night soil on his or her head or have the need to use chamber pots? What is wrong with having legislation passed that requires everyone to have a sewer connection from their home to the main system once it is put in place? What is wrong with creating real jobs for our people as we solve a challenge that is not going anywhere? If we get smart about this, we can build an industry, create jobs and nurture a healthy population by doing what we know to be right. This in turn will lift some of the burdens on our health system. Recycling creates jobs! Flushing sewer system creates jobs! Solid waste management creates jobs! Manufacturing and replacing sewer pipes creates jobs! Solid waste processing provides rich soil nutrients! Industrial waste management creates jobs, upholds the integrity of water sources and prevents environmental pollutions! We have a win/win in front of us if we want to take the bet. Will we take it?

No matter how you see it, waste management is a win/win proposal. Our people deserve better and we must come together to change our situation. As the presidential election approaches, we must make this critical issue part of the debate. We must make this a cause and extract promises we expect to fully cash from these candidates. We must ask these candidates to tell us how and when they plan to endow Ghana with a sewer system. We cannot tell the world that we are open for business if we can’t provide public toilets and thrash management. We cannot tell the world that we are moving forward when used oil ends up in wells, rivers and other valuable water sources. Using black polythene bags (“Wiase ye sum”), as our disposable toilets is sickening to say the least. Where do you think these market women and men ease themselves? We all know about this problem but no one wants to own it. When pushed into a corner, our primal instinct takes over. Those that use plastic bags and other unacceptable systems and processes are not necessarily bad people. We have made them so by not making it possible for them to behave properly. Why do we pay these leaders? We find money to buy luxury cars when we want to. We find money to build presidential mansions when we want to. We find money to fund excessive travels and stays in vintage hotels for our elected official. We find money to send our elected official overseas for medical care even while our own kith and kin die needlessly. Now is the time to find money to build a sewer system that we NEED, not want. Do you see the difference and can you hear me? I say NEED not WANT! Imagine the mess that CAN 2008 brings and join me in saying enough is enough. Now is the time to get the waste problem on the agenda.

Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman (Also known as Da Double Edge Sword)
I don’t give them hell, I tell the truth and they think it is hell---Harry Truman

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka