“Waste was slowly crippling our community.” – Mary Kaiganira’s story

Ten years ago, Mary Kaiganira moved to Kiambiu, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements. The poor state of sanitation in the area caused great agony for Mary. The lack of toilets in the area had led to improper disposal of human waste, and the entire community was at a loss on what to do – including Mary.  She spent most of her time and money in hospital corridors because three of her children were sick. “My children had constant stomach upsets, diarrhea and vomiting,” she recalls.

Area residents had access to only three toilets, all located at least 2 kilometers away from Mary’s home. “The state of these toilets was not good either; people preferred the indignity of open defecation.”

Defecation is commonplace in urban slums where proper forms of sanitation do not exist. According to the WHO, 892 million people still defecate in the open – in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water. Mary was distraught, there was nothing she could do to make the situation bearable for her young children.

Things began looking up for Mary in 2008 when Nairobi County Government mapped out Kiambiu’s land and allocated it to the residents through a legal process. By this time, Mary and her husband had accrued some savings to buy a piece of land. They built their house and an additional six rental units to lease out to tenants. They then put up a pit latrine to serve the sanitary needs of their tenants. As time passed by, other landowners in the area set up more housing units and pit latrines. However, all of the waste from the pit latrines was channeled into the neighboring river – posing a huge health and environmental hazard to the community. “Waste was slowly crippling our community and we did not know what to do,” says Mary.

To mitigate the dire situation, Mary joined forces with other community health volunteers to train people on proper hygiene practices such as hand washing. It is while training the community that she learnt of Fresh Life Toilets. “Fresh Life Toilets are not only clean and compact; the team also collects and safely removes all of the waste from the community,” she says. That motivated Mary to join the network.

Mary launched one Fresh Life Toilet three months ago to serve her tenants and has since helped four other landlords to install the facilities in their own plots. Fresh Life Toilets have significantly reduced the amount of waste that was previously strewn all over the community. The neighborhood is fast transforming into a clean area just as Mary had always hoped it would.

For the majority of residents in urban informal settlements where sanitation networks are largely missing, Mary’s story of transformation is unique. Fecal waste is among the leading sources of water and environmental contamination. With the realization that the population in cities is fast growing, we must develop innovative non-sewered sanitation solutions that ensure residents in slums gain dignified access to sanitation and can safely manage all of the waste in their communities. Mary and Kiambiu’s story must become the norm, not the exception.

World Toilet Day is a United Nations (UN) observance, on November 19, that highlights a serious problem – 4.1 billion people in the world lack access to sanitation. Sanergy takes a system-based approach to tackling the sanitation challenge in Kenya’s urban slums.

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