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When Africans couldn't relieve themselves in Nairobi toilets

Nairobi County’s public toilet along Koinange Street. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Five years ago, Adrian Kamotho Njenga moved to the Environmental and Land Court in a bid to compel road authorities and county governments to construct public toilets along the country’s highways.

According to Njenga, these institutions had violated Article 42 of the Constitution that entitles every Kenyan to a clean and healthy environment. He stated that sanitation is a right of every citizen since “responding to a call of nature is an inevitable human process for which citizens have entirely no control.”

He argued that due to lack of such facilities, motorists and commuters urinated and defecated on the “streets, road reserves, adjacent bushes or open spaces” thus suffering “immense biological, metabolic and physiological torture.”

In its ruling, the court said transport authorities should incorporate toilets and other sanitation facilities in the road designs and designate enough facilities along national and international trunk roads.

While the matter of providing toilets along the highways became a constitutional matter, the city of Nairobi has had a history of neglecting this aspect of human hygiene.

Successive city governments have grappled with providing public toilets and the few that have since been constructed have led to skirmishes as different groups fought for control.

In colonial Kenya, however, authorities had no intention of constructing toilets for blacks. An apartheid system existed for usage of existing toilets that catered exclusively for European and Asian communities.

Louis Lomax, a black American journalist who visited Kenya in the early 1950s was bewildered when he tried to answer a call of nature in one government building. “My eyes fell upon the sign on a washroom door,” he wrote. He froze as his eyes read: “Men: European.” But having been born Georgia in 1922 when racial segregation was rife in the state, the sign did not come as a surprise. 

Still pressed, he walked several metres down the hallway, hoping for some relief. True, there was another washroom door, but before he could relax his muscles, he saw another sign: “Men: Asian.” Infuriated and about to empty his bladder on the floor, he walked a little further, hoping to see the sign, “Men: African” but there was none. In desperation, Lomax cried out: “My God, Africans can’t even go to the toilet!”

Despite what many early visitors described as a city of broad streets and an inviting climate, early Nairobi was described by diplomat Ralph Bunche as “one big (outdoor toilet) because there are practically no public facilities available for natives.” This was after he noticed a black man park his bicycle and in “plain view turn his back and relieve himself.”

Over 70 years since Lomax’ visit, walls around the city carry notices warning those relieving themselves thereupon of dire consequences.