They are the kinds of stories some might ignore, but I have always been fascinated by them because I think they held the key to making a success of projects in Uganda, as indeed elsewhere in Africa.
‘Buvuma residents don’t want pit-latrines’, said the story in Monday’s Daily Monitor.
‘About 55,180 (62 per cent) of the population in Buvuma Islands do not have pit-latrines at their homes, a new survey by Buvuma District authorities has revealed’, it said.
‘A total of 56,960 (64 per cent) of residents lack access to safe water.’
Dr Baker Kanyike, the district health officer, says the problem has been exacerbated by carelessness of islanders, who consider visiting pit-latrines as a taboo and many view the island as an open defection area.
“This situation has exposed many locals to hygiene-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery”.
You must feel for Dr Kanyinke, he has a tough job on his hands. But why would the good people of Buvuma consider visiting pit-latrines a taboo, and instead turn the island into an “open defection area”, bringing diseases upon themselves?
The answer has to be that they consider getting cholera and typhoid a lower risk than what would they suffer using pit-latrines.
I too used to be puzzled by this kind, on the face of it, irrational and dangerous behaviour. Fortunately, I learnt to ask people, who know better. On several occasions, help has not been too far. I have many sources who know a lot about these kinds of “strange” behaviours.
Not too long ago, I shared with one of them an article in Kenya’s Daily Nation, which examined this phenomenon. Titled Medical campaigns that failed to gain acceptance among the beneficiaries by a promising young journalist Verah Okeyo, it looked at why “instead of embracing scientific ideas with open arms, the targets reject them without a second glance”.
One of the examples she gave was why Kenyans at the Coast and in Nyanza regions, where malaria is rampant, refused totally to sleep under mosquito nets, which were given free. Yes, people used the nets instead for fishing, wedding veils and to protect their vegetable gardens against hail stones, but why would that be more important than keeping malaria at bay?
The scientists figured out that at the Coast, residents rejected the white bed nets because they were like the shrouds used to cover the dead, so they felt that they were being prepared for death!
‘Dr Bernhards Ogutu was among the malaria scientists who learnt the hard way that the science cannot be proved without taking into account social and cultural factors that may turn a breakthrough into a breakdown’, the story said.
“So we did not use white mosquito nets there again”, he said. That was it. The colour! Blue, pink nets, but not white please. And so my source told me a story from Karamoja a few years back, which is akin to the one in Buvuma.
She said while First Lady Janet Museveni was minister for Karamoja, she pushed through and built a low-end estate in Moroto. She did her bit, but the estate remained empty.
The citizens of Moroto just couldn’t move into them. What went wrong?
For the Karamoja population that was targeted, their idea of living involved living in a place surrounded by family, clansmen and women, “not strangers who might kill you in the night and steal your cows”, she told me.
And, equally, like the people of Buvuma, most of them couldn’t use the pit-latrines that had been built there and around Moroto Town, and continued to relieve themselves in the open.
It was because of witchcraft. Using a pit-latrine, they believed, made it easier for your enemy to know exactly the place where you left your waste, take it away, and bewitch you.
However, if you did your thing along the road where 100 other Karimojong warriors had done the same thing, your enemy would be confused, unable to pin-point precisely which pile of mischief was yours. Clearly, there is cold method to the madness.
Defecating in the open was a defence strategy. Probably the pit-latrine sceptics of Buvuma think they can get treatment for cholera, but they won’t have a cure against the witch doctor who uses their waste, and throws them mad, or capsises their boat during a fishing expedition.
And to the brothers in Karamoja, any risks is worth taking to prevent some misfortune befalling their cattle herd.
This is no reason to give up. As it is, science has an answer for us here. It is called the incinerating toilet. It is probably not that the people of Buvuma don’t want pit-latrines. They do, but of a different type. Just like the people of coastal Kenya with mosquito nets.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia. com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3