Living in a city should be a source of pride. However, Selemani Katundu, a resident of Mbayani Township in Blantyre, living in the commercial city has not only become a liability, but also a source of shame.
He is one of the thousands of people from the township who flock into Blantyre’s central business district (CBD) everyday in search of piecework. But in town, they face a different problem—sanitation.
Many of them, he says, urinate or defecate in open places because either they cannot afford to pay for private convenience or there is none around.
“It is a big problem for most of us who come into the city looking for an opportunity to make money. Sometimes it is not easy to source K50 ($0.08) for urinating or K100 ($0.16) for defecating as demanded by those running public toilets. In certain scenarios, especially when you have an upset stomach, you may soil yourself before you find the next facility,” he says.
He complains that it is hard to make money in the city and many people chose to relieve themselves in nearby bushes. Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond the Blantyre and Limbe CBDs. It is also the same in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba, where public conveniences were let out to private entrepreneurs to manage.
Even then, however, there are only a few of them to satisfy the demand. No wonder, a Sanitation in Urban Malawi Study published in 2009 says only 27.3 percent of the city’s residents can access a public toilet.
The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal number six focuses on ensuring ‘access to water and sanitation for all.’
Blantyre City Council (BCC) director of health, Emmanuel Kanjunjunju, concedes that most of the infrastructure in the city does not pass a health and sanitation test owing to the fact that they do not provide sanitary facilities to the general public. This is against the city’s bye-laws adopted in 2003.
“It is a fact that most buildings are not compliant with our standards. These include shops and even banks. Most of these were built decades ago. Whenever property developers are submitting their plans, they usually indicate the availability of sanitation facilities. But in practice, there are hardly any when the structures are built,” he explains.
Kanjunjunju says because of this, the city is under pressure to offer public toilet services because the available ones are inadequate.
Scanning through the Blantyre CBD, only a handful of functioning public toilets are visible, with one at Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) close to Ziboliboli market being the most prominent. Another one is located at Blantyre Flea Market, but both toilets are in poor condition. Urine runs on the floors, heaps of faeces are strewn all over the place, making one wonder if there is anyone responsible for the facility.
Other public toilets scattered all over the city are in better condition. Some people have taken advantage of this situation to construct toilets using card boards or used iron sheets, but still the environment at these is not attractive.
No wonder, going around the city, some spot especially dark alleys, are defecation zones. With the onset of the rains, the situation does not inspire confidence considering that the past years have shown that waterborne diseases such as cholera spread faster during the rainy season.
There has been a vigorous campaign by the BCC to police people who violate the city’s laws on sanitation as it aims to be free from open defecation and urination by the year 2017, according to Kanjunjunju.
BCC patrol vehicles, city rangers and police are a common sight in CBB—making sure there is compliance on issues of trade and sanitation. But like Katundu, Verson Nyali, a vendor in the Blantyre Market, wonders whether the presence of the rangers and police alone is a solution to the problem since a bigger population in the city cannot afford to pay for public toilets services.
“The problem is that we do not have the facilities that can accommodate everyone. Our economic status is different. Not every person can afford a toilet at K50 or K100. There should be free public toilets,” he says.
There is hope for better in the city following a partnership between BCC and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the British Department for International Development (DfID).
The partnership funds Blantyre Urban Sanitation Project to the tune of $2 638 272 (about K1.1 billion) and comes under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement. BCC says the project will see 100 public toilets constructed or renovated across the city.
Save Kumwenda, public and environmental health specialist based at The Polytechnic, underscores the need for city councils to ensure they comply with international health standards.
“Blantyre City needs more public toilets because of its large population of over 600 000 and also because most of the public places such as shops, banks and other places where people go for services do not provide such facilities to their clients or customers,” he explains.
Kumwenda says in many cities around the world, shopping malls, banks and other places where people go for various services have free toilets, which reduce the burden on public paying toilets.
Kumwenda further observes that it is hazardous for people to urinate and defecate openly in the cities.
“Whenever people relieve themselves in the open, the faecal matter can be swept away to rivers and streams where most people collect water for household use. For those walking barefoot, they can contract helminth diseases. The smell from these urine and faecal matter creates a foul odour for residents and visitors,” he adds.
According to Kumwenda, city councils have to enforce their health regulations to ensure property owners have toilets for their clientele.
“There have to be specific number of toilets to serve a certain number of people.
“Cities and popular locations that welcome over 2 000 pedestrians per day must have toilet facilities within 500 metres,” says Kumwenda.
In the absence of such regulations, people like Katundu will always look for the next quiet place to relieve themselves.