Around the world, people struggle for adequate, decent toilets. In schools and prisons across the United States, women struggle to find decent and private toilets. Women farm workers struggle and fail to find anything like a toilet in the fields. Even women Senators can have a tough time finding a place for relief. When it comes to toilets, it’s a man’s world … everywhere. Remember that. Toilets are a human right, an essential component of human dignity, everywhere. Not just in the ‘developing world.’
Recently, toilets have been big news in South Africa, in particular in the Western Cape, where shack dwellers and their supporters have taken to throwing and dumping human feces in protest of the deplorable state of toilets and the deplorable toilet of State services. And so people have weighed in with both glee and great insight on the “toilet wars”, on the politics of shit, and on shit and social justice. In fact, the toilet wars of Khayelitsha have been going on for over a decade, and so no one is particularly surprised that the shit has finally hit the fan.
But there is something else going on here, and that has to do with the concept of “informal settlements”. The phrase “informal settlement” suggests transitory and transitional, and, to a large extent, absolves the State of any responsibility. After all, it’s informal. Here’s an even better, more pungent articulation: it’s a “reception area”. Welcome to the Ileni informal settlement, in Keetmanshoop, nestled among the quiver trees in southern Namibia. Watch your step.
The story is the story you know, if you know the story of informal settlements. In January 2012, people tired of waiting for the city, in this case Keetmanshoop, to do something, to allot them land that it said it would allot, the promised land. Tired of waiting, they moved in and set up shop, or shack, on municipal land. The city issued an eviction order. The “land grabbers”, which is how the local media refer to them, ignored the order. Then, the order was delayed because the place to which they were going to be evicted was just brush. Finally, the bulldozers came and off they went, to Ileni “reception area”.
Ileni informal settlement has all the markings of an informal settlement: “dangerous illegal electricity connections”; shack fires especially in winter that seem to target the vulnerable, like children; and no toilets to speak of. Or worse, unspeakable fake toilets.
And that’s where the residents of Ileni informal settlement are today: “buckets and bushes cater for Ileni residents.” Women, like Erica Tsuses and Sofia Boois, are in charge of the ‘bucket system’. The family uses the buckets, in the home, as a latrine; holes are dug; faeces and urine are buried; more holes are dug; and it goes on and on. Keeping this system operational is women’s work. Protesting this system is women’s work as well. Whether or not “sanitation needs” are covered by the Namibian Constitution, and whose Constitution covers toilets anyway, the “sanitation needs” of girls, women, and the whole community matter. Girls are particularly affected, women are particularly affected, and everyone is particularly affected. Ask the residents of Khayelitsha, ask the residents of Ileni. These sites are neither “informal” nor “reception areas.” They’re living breathing communities where the residents are tired of being treated like shit.