Flushing to Forget: The Dirty Business of Poop

By Julia Camp

I sit in the comfort of my home, secure in the fact that I will walk down my hallway and find a bathroom, a door I will lock, and a toilet I will flush. Secure in my confidence that my waste will be safely carried down the drain to join the sewage system deep beneath us. We flush, then we forget.

2.5 billion people around the world do not share this confidence. In Kigali, Rwanda, there is no central sewage system or treatment plant to speak of. Instead, Kigali’s residents use pit latrines (glorified outhouses) or toilets connected to septic tanks. hese pits and septic tanks fill with human waste quickly in urban areas — family sizes are big and many families may share a single toilet. Many of the pits are improperly constructed, so when they are full, waste may seep into the groundwater or overflow in the rainy season, contaminating drinking water sources and releasing harmful pathogens into community environments. The vacuum trucks responsible for emptying full tanks are too great of an economic burden and physically too large to access the informal settlements that comprise 70% of Kigali’s population. Thus, in the event of a full toilet, poor households are forced to hire people to do the work we know as manual pit emptying. This undesirable task involves excavating the full pits of waste with no equipment, often with bare hands or rudimentary tools like shovels and buckets. The work falls on the shoulders of those willing to work late hours of the night — out of sight, out of mind, and wading waist deep through other people’s excrement. Due to a lack of alternatives, the waste is released into the environment — usually buried in a ditch next to the household or dumped in a local body of water meant for the communities washing and drinking needs.

A pit emptier sits deep inside a filled pit of fecal sludge.

Pit Vidura is a startup that seeks to address this harmful cycle of environmental degradation, public health risk, and shame. Based in Kigali, Rwanda, Pit Vidura identifies manual pit emptiers and equips them with the tools and training they need to offer safe and affordable services to low-income households. Pit Vidura also develops state of the art tools such as portable pumps that can reach and empty the pits of households in the densest, poorest, and hardest to access urban areas. Pit Vidura’s work is recognizing waste workers who were once shamed and ostracized in their communities as public health heroes who perform a necessary service.

Pit Vidura emptiers equipped with protective gear.

Regis Birori is Pit Vidura’s Engineering Lead and describes the impact of Pit Vidura’s training on workers and their families’ lives. “Pit Vidura transforms the workers into professional emptiers, providing them health and safety equipment. They are getting paid every week and their families are happy now.”

Regis Birori, Pit Vidura’s Engineering Lead.

Pit Vidura continues to grow and serve more households through its community involvement and innovative hardware and software development. It is enterprises such as these that do the groundwork to achieve the universal health targets, defined by the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The goals seek to tackle issues of health, poverty and inequalities worldwide, broadly identifying a range of global problems in need of awareness. The willingness to learn and adapt to the nuanced needs of individual communities, families, workers, and ecosystems is the only hope for inclusive progress. Pit Vidura’s cost-effective and worker oriented waste management system will be used across Kigali, other cities in Rwanda, and eventually throughout the world.

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