issue 207 - May 1990
Illustration: Clive Offley
Mrs Oyepeju's pump
When the village's new pump broke down, Mrs Oyepeju took
matters into her own hands. A short story by Maggie Black.
Mrs Grace Oyepeju, midwife, grandmother of 32 children, Mother of Orunda village, cooled her face with the breeze of her banana-leaf fan while she waited for her moment. Whenever visitors came, and they came often since the handpump, Mrs Oyepeju put on her heaviest cotton robes, tied a confection of fabric around her head, and assumed her position. These days the visitors always asked to hear the women's point of view. When the Village Chairman nodded she rose stiffly to her feet. Mr Matoke from Local Government in Awe, his brow creased in concentration, translated for her as usual. They stood side by side; they understood one another.
Although the dry season was well on its way and the sun beat down unkindly, eagerness shone from the visitors' important faces. Mrs Oyepeju was a figure only faintly suggested in the numbered paragraphs of their planning documents. Now here she was at the proverbial end of the long, hot, and dusty track, large as life and twice as magisterial.
The handpump, she began, had come from India. It was called 'Mark 2' because two people had left their mark upon it. One was the engineer, who had brought his drilling rig and planted the handpump in the ground. The other was the Chairman - here she bowed towards him - who had made it his business to look after it. The women liked the hand-pump, they liked it greatly. It had brought happiness to Orunda village, and she, Mrs Oyepeju, thanked the visitors and asked if they could send another. Then she sat down.
Next day, Mrs Oyepeju received an unexpected caller: a tall woman in pure white canvas shoes who came with Mr Matoke in his new pick-up truck. She had visited yesterday, she said, and she had come back because she was unsatisfied. Mrs. Oyepeju offered her guest a soft drink and asked how she could help. The villagers of Orunda would be upset to know that she had not enjoyed their hospitality. No, no. That was not the problem, said the visitor, not at all.
First she talked of 'genda', but 'genda' was not a word Mr Matoke was able to translate. Then she talked of handpump, a word which needed no translation. Why was the handpump situated next to the Chairman's house? And why had his son gone for training, why not a woman like herself, Grace Oyepeju? Did she not think a woman could hold a spanner and grease a nut? The visitor's words poured onto the ground like a torrent. Mrs Oyepeju and Mr Matoke were non-plussed.
In her canvas shoes she had visited the stream. There had been women there with pots. Why? Did they not know that stream water gave children diarrhoea? Then the visitor's pink face became flushed. She had found out that the village Chairman charged the women for handpump water! What an outrage! Did they not know that handpump water must be free! The women of Orunda must make a stand against male exploitation and Mrs Oyepeju must lead it.
Mr Matoke mopped his brow and looked the other way. There was a silence. Then Mrs Oyepeju told her visitor that she, Mother of Orunda, would weigh these words very carefully.
Well, there was truth in it. The pump was on the Chairman's land. Naturally he and the engineer had settled such a matter. The son, trained in handpump maintenance, now called himself a mechanic. He had hammered a signboard onto the tree saying 'Adeheyo's Repair Shop', and was even now mending the puncture in Mr Matoke's back tyre. And yes, the women did pay a levy for using the handpump. Was this wrong?
Over the next days, she discussed these things with the women of Orunda. They talked of power, they talked of the selfishness of men, and Mrs Oyepeju wore her juju bracelet constantly. Then they stopped paying money for the hand-pump water and waited to see what would happen.
For a time nothing did. Some men took the women's side, pleased to see the Chairman scratching his pockets, down on a leader who abused his position to enrich himself at the people's expense. Who was he to own the water? Next he would claim to own the sky! Then, just as the dry season began to bite, the hand-pump broke down.
Adebeyo refused to mend it. He said it was too strong a rupture. He laughed when Mrs Oyepeju borrowed his spanner. No, the engineer in Awe was not around. He was busy seeing to hand-pumps in villages where, Adebeyo said, chairmen were more 'co-operative'.
Mrs Oyepeju was angry. But the women of Oronda did not seem bothered. They plied back and forth from the stream. It had served their husbands' fathers and their fathers' fathers well, they said. What was so good, anyway, about water which came from a deep, dark hole in the ground where evil spirits might have tampered with it? When you thought about it, the whole idea had been a trick. The engineer had been in league with the Chairman, and both were in it with Mr Matoke, and he, well where had his new pick-up come from? - anyone could read the fancy symbol on the side.
Mrs Oyepeju shook her head. She looked at the children's dirty hands and fly-blown eyes, and she told the mothers of the babies she had midwived that they were ignorant and stupid.
A few days later the stream ran dry. Such an event had never occurred before, not even in the worst dry season. Now everyone in Orunda was suffering, every man, woman, and child. The women had to walk miles to a dirty pond shared with a group of cattle people from up north. Some were beaten up and their pots broken. Men threatened to fight. Children were sick. The word 'cholera' was whispered. The only solution was to mend the handpump. Very well, said the Chairman. He would go to Awe and speak to the authorities.
Some days later, the Chairman and three men in overalls drove into Orunda in Mr Matoke's pick-up. They brought with them a metal tripod, lifting tackle, rods, pipes, clamps, and in two hours they mended the pump and replaced the broken parts.
But before they touched the pump they held a meeting of all the village. It was proposed, and unanimously agreed, that every family would pay a levy to keep the pump clean and in repair. The Chairman would collect the money and spend it appropriately. When the water came flowing through the spout again, all Orunda, men, women and children, shouted their excitement.
Some weeks later, after the rains, the Orunda stream began to flow again. By then, explained Mrs Oyepeju to the visitor in canvas shoes who returned one day in Mr. Matoke's pick-up, 'genda' had borne fruit. It was the visitor's turn to be nonplussed. The pump on the Chairman's land? His collusion with the authorities? The male preserve? The mechanic? The levies? What had changed?
Mrs Oyepeju, Mother of Orunda, smiled benignly. I have changed, she told her guest. When I saw how stupid were my daughters and how dirty and sickly their children, I employed migrant workers, cattle people from the north, and I had the stream diverted. It flowed away, and the village found it dry. When they all suffered, male and female, they made a decision together. It was a good decision. And now it cannot be undone by those who bring ideas from other places and do not understand our ways.
The visitor curled her canvas toes in evident discomfort. But Mr Matoke nodded wisely. Then he asked Mrs Oyepeju a question deep in their own tongue. What did you do with the water from the stream? Ah, she said. I planted, and I harvested while everywhere else was dry. And what will you do with the profits? he asked in humble admiration. With your help, Mr Matoke, I shall purchase a handpump. I shall put this pump on my own land. And I and my daughters and the mothers of the children of Orunda, we shall run it for ourselves.
Flushing our bodily wastes away with the tweak of a handle or pull of a chain is a luxury that three-quarters of the world's population can never aspire to. Laying on water, toilets, drains and sewers to every household would cost at least one thousand dollars a head - and most developing countries will never afford that. So the 'Sanitation' in 'Water and Sanitation for All' has to be the lower-cost, humbler pit latrine, a means of confining and neutralizing harmful ordure rather than flushing it away. During the Water Decade, latrines have received a considerable amount of attention.
The problem with latrines is that almost no-one wants to use them. Any picnicker will sympathize: the olfactory advantage of the open air as a place of 'convenience' recommends itself against a small, dark, smelly and often fly-blown shit-house. But in many parts of the Third World where the tree and bush cover close to town or village has disappeared, privacy is becoming hard to find, something women find especially difficult. For health reasons too, latrines must find ways of recommending themselves: diarrhoeal disease is arguably more often transmitted on the legs of flies which alight first on human faeces and then on food, than by any other route.
The sanitary engineers, therefore, have given a lot of thought in the recent past to improving both the design and the reputation of the offending pit latrine. Pioneers include John Pickford and his team at the UK's Loughborough University; Peter Morgan at the Blair Institute in Harare, Zimbabwe; Iswarbhai Patel of the Environmental Sanitation Institute in Abmedabad, India, and others in a rare breed of toilet missionaries, proselytizing their difficult, taboo-ridden cause.
There are two basic types of pit latrine: the pour-flush, which has a toilet bowl with water in a U-bend like an ordinary WC but for squatting not sitting; and the dry variety, with your basic hole and not much else. The choice depends on the method of anal cleansing, and is therefore fixed geographically and culturally: water in Asia, dry in Africa. The pour-flush makes no sense in a water-short area where no-one can afford neat little squares of decomposable paper wipes.
Both types have been radically improved over the years. The pour-flush is now a well-established, even commercial, proposition. Most design effort now goes into trying to keep it cheap; it is the pit lining material which makes the construction of all latrines costly, and they can run up to $200. The dry latrine has been vastly improved in its new incarnation as a VIP - ventilated improved pit - latrine. The addition of a ventpipe external to the hut, reaching into the pit, makes it odourless and flyless. Of all the pipes in the water and sanitation field, this is the one doing most to transform the messy and unpleasant business of the pit stop.