This reflection is inspired by the fact that when in the 90s, renowned University don, Godfred Tangwa, under the pen name Rotcod Gobata published his unputdownable book entitled ‘The Past Tense of Shit’, being a collection of prophetic reflections serialized in The Post newspaper on the travails of Anglophones and what could befall Cameroon if nothing was done, many thought his objective was just to test the linguistic competence of experts over the unsettled quarrel of whether the past tense of ‘shit’ was ‘shat’ or ‘shitted’, not knowing that the past tense could as well be ‘death’, as in the case of the gendarme officer who died a fortnight ago in Douala after ‘shitting’ at Finex travel agency and lacking a 100 CFA F (less than USD 50 cents) to pay for the service.
It is the more informed by the fact that when former Bamenda City Delegate dismissed media inquiries on the urgency for public toilets on its Central Business District on grounds that city dwellers weren’t disciplined enough to deserve such a service, Press and Associates program over Ndefcam radio undertook to ascertain the contrary by raising funds to sustain the cleanliness and free to public use of the ultra-modern toilet at the Bamenda Regional Hospital, with unhesitating approval from then Director, Dr. Kinge Thompson Njie, who as prophetic about public toilets as Rotcod Gobata, has held that no other demand, however urgent and necessary, needed to compete with an individual’s need to answer nature’s call. One year down the line, the toilet is as clean and as free to the public under Dr. Denise Nsame (and more importantly, the serviceable toilet attendants), as it was on inauguration day under Dr. Kinge.
It is also inspired by the fact that although paradoxically, an average Cameroonian tends to have access to the latest Android phone, one in every three Cameroonian lacks access to a proper toilet and proper sanitation. And even when a public toilet exists, other pecuniary demands, as obtained with the Finex travel agency case in Douala, tend to compete with the need to ease one’s self.
I rent a modest two-room apartment with one toilet in one of Bamenda’s inner city areas. With a family of about six, a lot of anxiety, calculation, and ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ must be taken into consideration during early morning rush hours on who uses the facility first. The bossy nature of children makes them to occupy the toilet as early as 5a.m, on grounds that they must rush to school. My wife, myself and the other relations may need to hold our patience. But this could only go as the pressing need to answer nature’s call could allow. At times, children need to be aggressively pushed out of the toilet, especially as they are never in a hurry. They may have to also brush their teeth, ease themselves in turns before taking their baths. If it is possible to hurry the children out of the toilet, not so sure for a guest who has spent the night with you.
Before the crisis in the two English-speaking regions in Cameroon (Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons) could force us to consider a smaller apartment, we had been renting a much larger apartment with two toilets. The landlord had justified the high rents on grounds that the two toilets would better serve us and our visitors. He was after all right. Little wonder, most families make the final decision on which apartment to rent based on the number of toilets inside. Little wonder most landlords base their rents on the number of toilets the facility has. Little wonder it’s easy for a man or woman to quickly accept a knock at the door of an outsider into his or her parlour than to allow a visitor get to use their bathroom without them first quickly checking to make sure it’s in order. One is always conscious about what uprising musician Ignatius Nji, alias Bob Ben refers to in one of his hit songs as ‘your inner true self’, which is known by a visiting friend only after using the toilet. The cleanliness of, or nasty nature of one’s toilet defines one’s ‘inner true self’, to quote my friend, Bob Ben.
If such anxieties and ifs and buts characterize the usage of private toilets, the same cannot be said of public toilets, be they run by government or private establishments. Where they exist, they are managed with reckless abandon. Finex Douala travel agency’s toilet, even though payable, and as opposed to the toilet in Finex Yaounde travel agency, fall into that reckless category. Having travelled extensively across Cameroon, agencies, and parks with public toilets in good sanitary conditions can be counted by the fingertips. Talk less of the fact that those who man the toilets seem to be given birth to by the same person as virtually all have raised arrogance to the level of fine art. However hard pressed you are, if you are not having a CFA F 100 (less than USD 50 cents) coin, you are not likely to be served. Check it out at agencies right in Bamenda, talk less of Makenene (on the way to Yaounde). You would be chastised at the end route Makenene stopover if you dare approach the toilet attendants there with any amount of money other than a CFA F 100 coin. At times you are not given the opportunity like the late gendarme officer in Douala to first ease yourself before quarrels begin on why you were not traveling with the required money.
The worst is when a valiant Cameroon soldier, trained with Cameroon taxpayers’ money for the maintenance of law and order, is brutally murdered only for Cameroon authorities to come out to declare that public toilets in travel agencies are by law free and that only councils have a right to collect tolls on public toilets. Come to think of the fact that this has been happening under the watchful eyes of these officials and some of those who are supposed to be enforcing the said legislation have themselves been paying such tolls over the years.
Come to think of the fact that even ordinary Cameroonians have been in advance of government in this domain. The case of Dr. Kinge, then Director of the Bamenda Regional Hospital, cannot be an over celebration. He had to construct an ultra-modern toilet not only for users of the facility but for all City inhabitants even at a time the city boss saw no urgency for one. It has also been endless celebration for an illustrious daughter of Kom, U.S based Irin Njuakom who under her Irina Toilet Project and the one-village, one-toilet initiative constructed a befitting ultra-modern public toilet inside the Njinikom market. Upon completion, and during his economic tour of Boyo Division, North West Governor, Adolph Lele L’afrique took time off to commend her selflessness and the central role the toilet could play to the health of that community. Come to think of the fact that even before then, and as early as the 90s, another illustrious son of Boyo, Bochong Alhadji Bako had undertaken to freely construct and hand over public toilets to some needy communities in Kom, including my native Abuh Community. Come to think of the fact that it was the same burning anxiety that animated Ntumfor Barrister Nico Halle’s stewardship as spokesperson for the North West Fons when he held that the best house in every village should be the Fon’s Palace and by extension, a modern toilet.
One may think that the Kinges, the Njuakoms, the Bakos, the Halles, and the few who have stood out to reflect and do something concrete about public toilets did that for praise and recognition. Far from it. Having access to decent toilets is not only a matter of human dignity but of human rights. The actions of the Ntumfors, the Bakos, the Njuakoms and the Kinges might have been informed by the latest research which shows that when people don’t have access to toilets, women and girls risk being raped and harassed because they have nothing that offers privacy.
I might be fortunate to be among the few that rent structures with toilet facilities. Not so sure for millions of Cameroonians and other citizens around the world. Globally as of today, 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper toilet sanitation and about 1 billion people still must defecate in the open. That is a whole lot of people with no place to poo and a whole lot of poo with no place to go. Added to this is the fact that over 500,000 children die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation as people around the world still defecate in the open. Having to defecate openly infringes on human safety and dignity. Many women and girls have had to be raped and attacked by hoodlums in some communities and neighborhoods as they struggled to do it in the open.
Recognizing the life-saving importance of toilets and sanitation, the United Nations in 2013 dedicated November 19 of each year as World Toilet Day, to raise awareness about the fact that one in three persons around the world had no place to go to when nature calls. Instead, many people have no choice but to face the indignity of relieving themselves in the open where they are exposed to disease, vulnerable to harassment or attack and where they may contaminate drinking water sources.
In order to make sure the gendarme officer at Finex travel agency in Douala didn’t die for nothing and in order to make sure no Cameroonian ever dies again because he/she lacked a 100 CFA F coin to pay to answer nature’s call, Cameroon government’s policy on public toilets needs to be quickly revised and updated to make the provision of public toilets mandatory for City and sub divisional councils across the country.
It is only through this that the gendarme officer’s soul would rest in peace. It is only through this that well-deserved tribute would be paid to Jack Sim, founder of Restroom Association of Singapore and founder of the World Toilet Association. Yes, we must go against our primary school moral to initiate a national conversation on the need to give dignity to poo.
We must begin talking about poo in the present tense and not necessarily in the past tense. After all, how does the past tense bother us when contemporary linguists are not settled on whether the past tense of ‘shit’ should be ‘shat’ or ‘shitted’?