Karimo: Where Toilets are a Luxury


On the occasion of the World Toilet Day 2016, Chineme Okafor spent time in Karimo, an urban suburb in the Federal Capital City, where getting a toilet for defecation is a luxury for many of its inhabitants

“Before we had a toilet in this compound, we often pooed in plastic bags. All of us use these bags to pooh, including our children, they also pooh in plastic bags.

“We put them in our dustbin and ‘mai bola’ (paid trash collectors) take them to the dumpsite. Some people go to the ‘gidan wanka’ (tolled public toilet and bathrooms). Anybody that cannot use the plastic bags go to the ‘gidan wanka’ and pay money like our husbands to use the facility because they cannot use plastic bags.

“Some also go to the ‘bola’ (the refuse dump) or ‘gidan wanka’,” Mary Rufus told THISDAY in Pidgin English language which was paraphrased.
The 42 years old and a mother of six children, Rufus migrated to live with her husband in Abuja in 1996. And With her family, has since then lived in Karimo, a poorly planned suburb in Abuja.
Going by a 2011 population projection, residents of Karimo are part of the 2,238,800 people that make up the population of Abuja, but their homes largely do not have toilets, thus making community health quite a challenge.

As discovered by THISDAY during its investigative and advocacy visits, they either rely on paid public toilets, open defecation at dumpsites or pooh in plastic bags as confirmed by Rufus.
Even government schools in Karimo appear to have been built without toilet facilities. One of such, a primary school was in 2015 gifted a toilet by a church – The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) to protect the health of its pupils. Prior to the donation, pupils had no toilets to use during study hours, and often went home or did open defecation.

It was on the basis of this and the global commemoration of the importance of clean and functional toilets to healthy livelihoods and human productivity as represented in the World Toilets Day which is often marked annually on November 19 that THISDAY and the Media Information and Narrative Development (MIND) – a participatory media NGO, spent time with folks in Karimo and other semi-urban communities on the fringes of Abuja, documenting their livelihood challenges.

Rufus spoke fluent Pidgin English, and was very comfortable conversing with THISDAY and other development journalists who partnered with MIND to amplify the voices of poor urban residents – majorly women and girls, in Nigeria’s federal capital city.
“It has been a while since we built the toilet,” she said, pointing to a ramshackle structure which serves as the family’s toilet.

In it, the family defecates, but it was not there until less than a year ago when the landlord granted the approval for its construction using funds from the family’s rents.
“Our landlord asked us to take from our house rent to build the toilet, and so we took from it to build,” Rufus buttressed.

The kernel of Rufus’s answers as she presented them in Pidgin English is that, before the ‘toilet’ was built, the family relied on open defecation using plastic bags which are then left for the local trash collectors to pick up for disposal.

She also noted that the grown men within her suburb often used the public toilets which they pay N30 for a session, or go off to the dumpsites, some few minutes’ walk away from her home, to defecate.
“To use the toilet, if it is to have your bath and defecate, you will have to pay N50 but if it is only to use the toilet alone then it is N30. The ‘gidan wanka’ is clean, the boys there clean the place well enough,” she added.

Karimo’s challenges with healthy and functional toilets further lends credence to the findings of a recent study by WaterAid – an international organisation whose mission is to transform the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people by improving access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
In the WaterAid report titled ‘Overflowing Cities: The State of the World’s Toilet 2016’, Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy was said to have largely remained behind in responding to the needs of urban dwellers for toilets.

The report noted that since 2000, only one in three urban residents in Nigeria have had access to toilets, and that defecating in the open is most common in Nigeria as it is in South Sudan, Sao Tome and Principe, Eritrea, Liberia, Benin, Namibia, Kiribati, Togo, and Madagascar.

Women and girls in the four urban poor communities around the FCT who are participating in the implementation of MIND’s urban poverty project, the Women’s Advancement Through Cinema and Human exchange (WATCH) largely corroborate WaterAid’s findings as they all identified and prioritised lack of functional toilets within households as a key life challenge they face as women and girls.

While the problem affects the entire community, it possess a lot more challenges for women and girls as quite a number of them shared that they are often open to rape and other forms of sexual attacks when they dare to go far from their immediate living vicinities to defecate in the open.
Similarly, the WaterAid report stated that: “Although Nigeria is one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economies, the country is failing when it comes to progress on delivering sanitation to its citizens.”

It explained in clear terms that: “It (Nigeria) is the third most regressive country in the world on sanitation and only one of a handful of countries around the world where access to basic sanitation is falling rather than rising.”

“The percentage of Nigeria’s population without access to safe, private toilets is currently at a staggering 71 per cent (that is over 130 million people) with 25 per cent (over 46 million) practicing open defecation,” added the report.

Describing the development as ‘Nigeria’s sanitation crisis’ the report also stated: “The size, density and poverty of the urban population in Nigeria, combined with chronic governmental failure to provide sanitation services to slums, forces over 13 million of these urban dwellers to find anywhere they can to relieve themselves.”

THISDAY working closely with MIND on the media advocacy component of WATCH has found this to be true of urban poor communities around Nigeria’s capital city Abuja. A rise in population of people seeking the greener grasses in and around the ever expanding city of Abuja has been met with little or no expansion in the provision of public utilities such as toilets.

Clearly, private property developers in urban poor communities like Karimo don’t factor toilets into their building design and construction and there seem to be no government regulation compelling them to do so at the moment.

In the face of the ever growing concerns about the human right implication of urban poverty and the negative feedback this can potentially have on the development of Abuja as a model capital city housed by Africa’s largest democracy; there is a need for stakeholders across board to step back and ask if the appalling toilet situation exemplified by Karimo and the life experience of Mary Rufus is a luxury that Nigeria can continue to afford?

As stated by WaterAid and buttressed by MIND, Nigeria and indeed Abuja need to step up its policy drive on health to achieve increased access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) for all her citizens and residents everywhere and every time.