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  • on 28.02.2012
  • at 07:30 PM
  • by Randa Ghazy

Toilet capitalism: a Zimbabwean basket case 0

The restaurateur-cook-waitress looked more like a grandmother than mother, shrunken with poverty. Scarf tied around her simple but sweet face.

Tired but with a smile and outspread, work-worn hands, one felt the urge to give her a hug, and tuck her into bed, rather than giving ‘Mama’ an order for several plates piled high with steak and sadza (maize meal) at nearly midnight.

Our group (from Italy, Malawi, Britain and South Africa) had been invited by our lovely Zimbabwean friend ‘F’ to hang out at one of the best ‘braai’ or BBQ stands, in Harare. The braai stands, with rows of well-skewered customers on wooden benches, frequently act as gourmet cooks to Harare’s poor and not-so-poor people – ministers, businessmen, wannabes and in-betweeners – despite being located in the deprived Warren Park area in the heart of kwaMereki.

For a ‘cooking’ fee – about $16 for two kilograms of steak bought from across the road, ‘Mama’ got to work, flaming up a world-class braai, served on two metal trays. No utensils were provided and, until the very end, there was no light in the area, save from store-signs across the road and cars, some of them Mercedes, parked near the stands. Our enterprising Italian ‘G’, proffered up a lighter for our viewing pleasure; and a pen knife; and then it was our turn to work – eat, quickly, to free up a table.

Meanwhile, kwaMereki’s business-minded youth were being their usual resourceful selves, as they made a killing walking to and fro the 50 metres between the liquor stores and food stands, selling alcohol and soft drinks to thirsty diners. It appeared that beer made diners more thoughtful and largely immobile. Though the business of selling drinks was done in almost complete darkness, somehow, they would notice whenever a drinker approached the bottom of the bottle and offer to top-up.

Before and after we ate, our hands were bathed by a woman who walked around with a jug filled with lukewarm water and a bucket. There was no bathroom. Men migrated to far corners for their business. The women had it much more difficult and, when not able to escape to a discrete spot, often waited until they were able to return home. ‘It is not always safe across the road, in the dark, with all of these people,’ said one Zimbabwean woman.

While the gourmet restaurateurs pay $5 rent to the council (and city) on a monthly basis, like much of Zimbabwe, the area has several times prior been stricken by illnesses stemming from various structural problems – mainly the lack of toilet facilities and tap water. Since the early 1990s, save for negotiating use of bathrooms available in the mainly liquor and butcheries across the road, customers have been using the same area as a place of convenience. Problems are myriad. When it rains, amongst other things, the great wash of human release floods the vegetable gardens in the area. Cholera outbreaks sometimes occur, in Mereki and surrounding areas. All of a sudden, the delicious crunchy green vegetables from the gardens in our plates conjure horror.

But where are the rolling toilets?

With a piece of crunchy green salad in my mouth, it occurred to me then that Warren Park and Mereki went hand in glove with toilet capitalism. Sometime back, one Zimbabwean, in partnership with a South African, purchased mobile toilets from South Africa for Mereki, charging customers R5 a hit. He would go on to win an award. We inquired, but did not see, these award-winning toilets. Several younger chaps confirmed the rumour: ‘the rolling toilets? It has come through here, but I cannot say the whereabouts now.’

Certainly, the mobile toilet would have been a welcome addition and brilliant short-term solution – but at what cost? ‘What we want,’ said Mama, ‘is for them (government) to put in toilets and taps.’ From Thursdays to Fridays, she said, the place was jam-packed.

Of course, Warren Park is not special: one of my earliest memories is running almost straight into a ‘flying toilet’ in Nairobi, which until 2008 had just 150 public toilets for over 3.5 million people. The public toilets then, were a scene of physical chaos, later dubbed by a friend, visiting India – where over 800 million have little access to sanitation facilities, ‘toilet warfare’. Historically, the power imbalances underpinning the structural layout of public worlds have reflected economic inequalities in areas characterised by those lacking political capital.

Similar to environmental racism, evidencing landfills, slaughterhouses and the like, situated in the poorest areas, lack of waste sanitation is often interlocked with lack of access to clean water. In her book, ‘The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters‘, detailing the waste sanitation crisis, Rose George writes, ‘I thought a toilet was my right. It was a privilege.’ But as every African knows – this is untrue. Access to clean water and safe sanitation is a fundamental human right, only the quality of that provision (such as Japan’s high tech toilets) is a privilege.

This much was confirmed by the UN’s General Assembly, which bemoaned in the UN’s usual toothless way, that as much as 2.6 billion people globally have no access to waste sanitation. A situation that results in 2.2 million deaths annually, of which 1.5 million are children – excluding the numerous consequences of illnesses such as cholera, frequently affecting African countries.

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