A young man dashes out of a beer parlour with clenched teeth, pulls open his zippers and urinates carelessly by the walls of the building. A market woman pressed by a full bladder trots to a corner of the market and empties her bladder just by the side of food stalls.
A school child rushes out of the classroom, takes a quick look to his right and left, retires to a small bush by the school building, and drops off lumps of smelly faeces. During Sunday service, members of the congregation, men and women, children and adults, line up by the side of the church building to release the contents of their bowels or bladder. We love to defecate in open spaces. These unhealthy practices are common in our society. When nature calls, everyone responds differently.
We seem to have a fascination for defecating in public places and in bushes. Why do many Nigerians prefer to ease themselves in open spaces even when there are toilets in their homes or workplaces or in public areas? When people urinate or defecate in public spaces such as marketplaces, church premises, stadiums or sports grounds, airport terminal buildings, bus stations, petrol stations, or street corners, they not only help to poison the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and our environment, they also contribute significantly to the short lifespan of everyone.
We live in a deadly environment in which many people, through despicable behaviour, quicken the demise of the population. When people say that a lot of people are dying young in our time, they must also consider the impact on our health of our unhygienic practices.
Toilet habit is not normally a subject anyone would like to discuss in a public forum. It falls very much within the domain of the private. More significant, the topic is repugnant. It can put off many people from their breakfast table. How and where people choose to relieve themselves of the contents of their bowels should be a matter for individual decision. Anybody’s toilet habit should be that person’s private business.
The United Nations (UN) has taken notice of our unsanitary practices in Nigeria. It has conferred on Nigeria a rare award for notoriety in public health matters. Nigeria has emerged, according to the UN, as one of the top five countries in the world in which many citizens prefer to defecate in the public. Specifically, the UN report said that 34 million Nigerians unthinkingly expel faeces from their bowels in open spaces. The UN report was released on the World Toilet Day in November 2012.
The report reflects badly on the state of Nigeria’s public sanitation and indeed our overall attitude to public health. Geoffrey Njoku, UNICEF Communication Specialist (Media and External Relations) in Nigeria, who quoted a combined UNICEF and World Health Organisation report of 2012, said: “It is estimated that 34 million Nigerians practise open defecation and Nigeria is amongst top five countries in the world with largest number of people defecating in the open.”
The impact on public health of this revolting practice is obvious. Njoku said an estimated 194,000 children under five years of age die of diarrhoea every year. Respiratory or breathing related diseases also kill about 240,000 children every year.
In his words: “These are largely preventable with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene.” Human excreta lying indiscriminately in open spaces pose dangers to public water supply. The question must be asked: Why do many of us love to defecate in open spaces? There are as many reasons as the number of people you interview. I have heard all manner of bizarre excuses.
Some people say they love to defecate in open spaces because doing so offers them unlimited freedom. Others argue they engage in the conduct because public toilets are unavailable. Even when they find some toilets, they say, the toilets are largely filthy and stinking. Missing from all these wacky reasons is the health hazard posed to the general population by faeces deposited in public spaces. It is true that public toilets are unavailable in many urban centres and almost non-existent in rural areas.
In a country in which many households in local communities and many state governments perceive the construction of public toilets as unnecessary and a form of luxury, many people who engage in this practice might feel justified by their behaviour on the principle that they have no alternative but to use available spaces to relieve themselves.
The practice of defecating in open spaces may be attributed to individual attitude to hygiene or sanitation. I have seen people cook and eat in front of broken drains or sewage, or even in front of fly-infested, clogged-up, polluted and foul smelling gutters and culverts. The scale of public health problems in Nigeria is evident from the heaps of filth on which people sit and eat and do business.
Many city streets, backyards, living rooms, hospitals, restaurants and the so-called five-star hotels are dotted with mountains of filth, including industrial wastes. It is unthinkable that a population that shares its environment with offensive heaps of garbage and waste matter still manages to maintain good health. There must be something in our genes that helps us to resist attacks by diseases that arise from our dirty environment. Our attitude to sanitation is appalling.
Someone once asked a forceful question: “What would make an educated man, in a suit, buy cooked corn on the roadside and throw the cob out of the window of a moving vehicle when he is done?” That disgraceful conduct also defines the behaviour of a woman or man who defecates or urinates by the roadside on the assumption that if no one could see her or him, it must be okay to clear out their bladder or bowel anywhere anytime. It is this disregard for the sanctity of public health and our contempt for the environment that characterise the quality of life we live. Widespread public defecation in open spaces has reached a level that coercion alone can’t change our behaviour. Perhaps a sustained campaign of public health education can.
Force is never an effective means of achieving attitude change over a long period of time. Once the instrument of coercion disappears, the newly acquired habits will be abandoned. Look at what happened to the War Against Indiscipline (WAI), a public campaign against indiscipline, introduced and enforced by military dictators Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon between 1984 and 1985.
For the period the WAI crusade lasted, everyone behaved well. The general public put on their best behaviour not because people appreciated the new laws but because they dreaded the on-the-spot fines, as well as the immediate and open punishment imposed on offenders by soldiers on the streets. But look how quickly things deteriorated with the departure of Buhari and Idiagbon. No sooner did Buhari’s government fall to Ibrahim Babangida and his partners in the August 1985 coup than the good behaviour side of Nigerians disappeared.
The departure of Buhari and Idiagbon – the symbols of coercion — marked the return of bad manners in everyone’s consciousness. Disorderly conduct became the standard form of practice. We live in a filthy environment in a disorderly society in which no one cares about the welfare and wellbeing of others. It is a society in which everyone feels the government owes them something – to clean up their own mess. It is a society in which the government is perceived as the solution to all problems. Do we really need government to educate us about the hazards posed to our health when people defecate in open spaces? Do we need government to scrutinise everyone’s personal hygiene in their own homes?
In the past, public health officers used to visit homes, schools and public areas to enforce basic standards of hygiene. Many people perceived that intervention as unnecessary meddling in their lives. Others perceived it as an affront to their privacy. And yet others simply ignored public health officers and the penalties imposed on those who breached the basic rules of hygiene. Efficient health management starts with how we manage human waste. It is essential to the quality of our lives.
The challenge is for everyone to end the practice of defecating in open spaces. Innovative and cost effective ways of improving public sanitation, particularly those aimed at assisting the less privileged members of our society, should be encouraged and established.
There are many barriers, no doubt, such as entrenched conservative attitude to public hygiene which privileges defecation in open spaces to the use of toilets. Whatever happens, these attitudes are not insurmountable if the federal, state and local governments, as well as stakeholders in the health sector would commit to better sanitation in public and private places.