Poppy doesn’t speak much at first. She acknowledges me with a shy nod and smiles warmly, her red lipstick a perfect match to her bright floral sari.
Then, she promptly offers to show me her toilet.
I’m in Bangladesh with our Water Programs Manager, Jonna, to visit charity: water projects and explore new water and sanitation opportunities. Today, that means a block of latrines in a crowded slum in the country’s capital city. Toilets are nothing new to the charity: water team. During the last few months especially, we’ve racked up quite a few miles over some rough terrain to see varying latrine designs. But this latrine block is quite a bit different. In Bangladesh’s urban areas, nearly 20 million people live without sanitation. Yet these toilets were made to help a group that would otherwise likely sit at the end of the list — the physically disabled.
We’re in Pora Bosti, which means “Burned Slum.” Years back, this entire area caught fire and burned to the ground; the name has stuck ever since.
Pora Bosti is home to an enclave of handicapped residents. Some use a crutch to walk; others have wooden wheelchairs or crawl on their hands. But with five different latrines built to accommodate different physical ailments, all now have ready access to a safe and clean place to do their business.
Poppy is the president of the management committee which oversees these latrines along with a freshwater well installed here. When she was 12 years old, she was hit by a car (this is not hard to believe in traffic-laden Dhaka). She now lacks the use of her legs, but seems to get around fine in her wheelchair. And she’s excited to show us not only what the toilet she uses looks like — but how quickly and easily she can hop on the seat.
“Before we had these toilets, we would try to go in other toilets that aren’t really usable for us,” she tells us. “So we might go by ourselves in an open space, in the dark so no one would see.”
Poppy’s committee of 18 members collects a monthly fee of 1,000 Taka per family that uses the latrines (about $14, though the rate varies based on income), which they keep in their group bank account until they need funds for maintenance or repairs. They meet once a month to discuss hygiene practices while making sure the current latrine designs are working for everyone using them. And if they aren’t? Then they alter the model. This is why Poppy’s chosen toilet has a rope dangling from the center of the ceiling; she proposed it to the organization that helped build the facility, it was installed, and now she can comfortably use the bathroom.
“I’m happy I can use this now,” she tells us, though she doesn’t really have to. Her eagerness to show us her toilet in the first place spoke for itself.
charity: water multimedia producer