I wipe the dust from my eyes for what feels like the hundredth time, resist the urge to scratch the nagging bites around my ankles, and lean in closer to hear what Gladys Quispe has to say, as the squeaking pigs and clucking chickens compete with the feisty Bolivian woman. We have found the only shade in her patio underneath a banana grove on this unusually hot morning. We’ve been out since 5:30 a.m., as many people leave to work in the fields by 8 a.m.. Gladys doesn’t know it, but she’s famous. Word that a woman had organized other women in her barrio into a woman-run business had reached me and I was eager to meet the ‘compost’ lady.
Gladys Quispe, the ‘compost’ lady
In San Pedro, Bolivia, a town of mostly migrants from other parts of Bolivia, we are here to listen, learn, and improve our sanitation programming. The town is cut off from the rest of world for anywhere from 2-4 months out of the year when the nearby River Pirai swells its banks and covers everything. Nearly all the houses are made from wood or chuchillo, a local plant that reminds me of super-sized sugarcane. Men spend all day-or week-in their fields tending to rice, soy, and sugarcane.
Few own their land, and many have lost the last two years of rice to erratic weather. Women, and more often than not, their daughters, stay at home doing all that needs to be done to get by in places where wood needs chopping before you can cook, water needs to be stored to wash clothes, and the never-ending fight against dust requires constant efforts. Mother Nature was particularly nasty this year, bringing flood levels not seen in years and hemorrhagic dengue in addition to “regular” dengue. The water level marks on the homes tell stories of past floods and the hardships that go along living in several feet of water each year.
Taking stock of Gladys’s home, I remember our basement flooding when I was a child. We would come back from visits to my grandparents and the entire basement would be underwater; my parents would be up all night trying to salvage what used to occupy the first few feet of the basement. We had a toilet in the basement, and surely it must have flooded when the entire basement was. A similar thing happens in San Pedro, but it happens every year and is not solved with a sump pump and two crabby parents. Most homes consist of three separate structures; one room where the family sleeps-anywhere from 4-12 people; a separate kitchen where women and girls spend most of the day preparing and cooking food over wooden fires. Finally, usually in the corner of the lot-as far away as possible, but still on the family’s property-is a three-sided, un-roofed, waist-high simple pit latrine. I can see the indents from the latrines of past years; those whose contents were spread throughout the neighborhood with the yearly rains.
Comfort and money
We can’t stop the rains, but we can stop them from spreading shit into people’s cooking areas, bedrooms, and neighbors’ homes. For several years, we have been supporting an ecological sanitation programme in the region, in which elevated, alternating-twin pit toilets have been constructed with local government, community, and Water For People support. It was time to have a look and see what was working and what was not. Gladys is one of the women “thinking out of the bowl” in her community, and seeing how ecological sanitation can make her life more comfortable, beyond having a safe, private, place to go to the bathroom, but also putting some much-needed income in her pocket.
Gladys breaks out into a hearty laugh as we come up with creative strategies on how to get some of the difficult men in the neighborhood on the pot, so to say, as we walk over to her field trial site. Since emptying her toilet last year for the first time, Gladys has been experimenting with plants and fertilizers. She thinks she has found the magic mix, after trying several different types of fertilizers on a variety of ornamental plants and citrus fruits.
Gladys’nursery using manure from her toilet with plants in used yoghurt bags.
She doesn’t think small, though, this 34 year old mother of three. Recently, her women’s group won a 30,000 Boliviano ($4200) prize for productive sanitation. They have been collecting neighbors’ compost and starting a small business selling plants. Her customers say that her plants are larger than others of the same age and in the past few months since the business began, she has pulled in several hundred bolivianos. We talk about profits and she says this is the first year she is starting to see some of her investments come back and surely this cold hard cash prize will help take this to the next level.
As we saunter under umbrellas from house to house, we stop at a large piece of land that she is renting for the construction of a much larger production area. Gulping down chicha de maiz, she points out the work that they have already done and the excitement in her voice for her future plans is contagious. “Ese baño es una maravilla,” she says as she gives it a gentle pat, “no solamente no huele, es más sano, y me da unos bolivianitos.” (This bathroom is a wonder; not only does it not smell bad, it’s healthier and gives me a little bit of income).
Glady’s story is a bright one in a sea of failed sanitation projects not only in San Pedro, but the world over. One of the lessons learned after the 1980s Interntaional Water and Sanitation Decade, was that sanitation programming must be determined by customer demand, not a well-meaning engineering solution. Gladys is easily an “earliy adopter” as marketers would call her and her successful toilet-fertilizer-plant business could be just the local catalyst needed to convince others not only to use their bathroom effectively, but to follow suit and reap some of the “unconventional” benefits, too.
Story submitted for the Source story contest 2010, by Kate Fogelberg (KFogelberg@waterforpeople.org), Regional Manager, South America, Water For People