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Piss of mind: Why travellers irrigate the nation, pollute the air

By Hudson Gumbihi | September 16th 2021

Long-distance travel in public service vehicles is not for the fainthearted. First, you have to navigate through the chaos of Nairobi’s traffic to the bus stop, where your nose is instantly assailed by the whiff of stale urine.

Once seated, hawkers swarm all over the windows, trying to sell you everything from padlocks to underwear and windscreen wipers. Then in the middle of the madness steps a street preacher swearing damnation for fornicators and witches before launching into a fervent prayer to navigate you safely down Kenya’s blood-soaked highways teeming with the ghosts of accident victims long departed. It is some sort of psychological blackmail, for which you are obliged to fling a few coins into a hat. Call it additional insurance.

When your vehicle eventually pulls out of the station, it does not zoom off but ends up squatting in a traffic jam,which compels you to snap all windows shut, just in case a street urchin yanks off your wig or sprints off with your mulika mwizi.  

No luxury for privacy

In between sharing a seat with a snorting passenger, another shouting on phone, loud, tasteless music, rude road bumps and the overfed baby who has thrown up all over the place, it suddenly dawns on you that nature is calling and you are in shit so to speak and all of three hours from the nearest toilet!

In PSVs, there is no luxury for privacy when the urge to urinate or defecate knocks; matatus or some buses simply stop on the roadside then passengers jump out, dashing to the nearest bush to relieve themselves.

Caution is thrown to the wind as men, women and children feel no shame standing or squatting next to each in a display of unavoidable indignity. When pressed, one has no choice and cannot chose where to go especially if there is only one alternative, however unpleasant.

Unlike ships, planes or trains, most buses and matatus are not fitted with toilets. Travelers on road are usually left with two options when the urge to urinate or defecate comes; either persevere till the end of journey or swallow one’s pride and seek relief anywhere, including in the thicket.

Commuters have no choice

Peeing and pooping in bushes by passengers is not a recent fad but a longstanding habit as old as the roads and highways. Our road network is bereft of public sanitation facilities, save for a few toilets here and there. Given this sorry state of affairs, commuters have no choice other than relieving themselves in scrubs, exposing themselves to dangers like being harmed by animals besides compromising general hygiene.

Some private motorists and long distance truck drivers too find themselves in these awkward situations. It is not strange to spot VIPs pulling their guzzlers at the road side to answer to urinate or crap in the bushes.

It has become almost an acceptable behaviour for travelers to stop anywhere along the road and relieve themselves, ignoring the health and environmental effects of their actions. Sadly, authorities have done nothing to address this sanitation challenge contributing to an unhealthy nation. Proper sanitation reduces spread of diseases, saving families and government resources that are channeled to treatment.

Apart from an isolated knee-jerk reaction sometimes back in Narok County, the government has never prioritized sanitation on roads; focus has been on accidents instead. In Narok about 40 passengers were arrested by health officials for relieving themselves in bushes at Katakala along the Narok-Bomet highway.

The passengers were on board a bus traveling from Nairobi to Kisii. The raid according to public health officials, followed several complaints from locals protesting how the habit was contributing to spread of diseases and pollution of environment.

“This should serve as a warning to all other PSV owners and users. No vehicle using Narok-Mai Mahiu-Bomet highway will be allowed to stop for passengers to defecate along the road,” said public health director Daniel Sironka after the arrests.

It is well documented that cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis and polio are some of the diseases linked to open defecation with the poor remaining vulnerable since thy have no money or medical cover to seek proper medication.

Poor sanitation chews Sh27 billion annually

According to a study carried out by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) in 2012, poor sanitation costs the government around Sh27 billion annually.

In Kenya, about one-third of the population has access to hygienic and private toilets while 12 per cent of population defecates in the open.

The amount of waste dumped along the roads on a daily basis has devastating effects on humans, livestock, wildlife and general environment.

When it rains, the faeces are washed down into water points used for domestic use and agricultural use.

Defecating in bushes along highways is real. The situation is compounded by the fact that there is no water to wash hands after the call. Many of those relieving themselves do not use tissue paper; they rely on leaves or grass, some which can be toxic.

It is no wonder last month the court, in its wisdom, found it necessary to put a stop to this embarrassment, directing national and county government to construct toilets along highways and major roads.

Judge Kossy Bor ordered Transport CS to constitute a committee that will oversee installation of the washrooms. His ruling followed a petition by lawyer Adrian Kamotho who argued that provision of sanitation is a basic right as enshrined in the Constitution under Article 43. Bor said the right to decent public toilet is a fundamental right Kenyans should enjoy. “The state needs to provide clean and decent toilets for road users to relieve themselves while on their journeys to give effect to the right to a clean and healthy environment,” ruled the judge.

Kamotho accused Council of Governors, Kenya National Highways Authority, Kenya Rural Roads Authority and Kenya Urban Roads Authority of breaching the law in blocking citizens from accessing their toilets or charging a fee when allowed in.

“Sanitation is a first generation right that citizens should not be arbitrarily denied and responding to a call of nature is an inevitable human process for which citizens have entirely no control,” he argued. The petitioner said in circumstances where public toilets exists, users are charged a fee and those who have no money are turned away, forcing them to seek reprieve elsewhere like in bushes, along streets or open space.

“Out of necessity, road users are compelled to respond to calls of nature in full glare of their children, relatives and other commuters which is humiliating and degrading,” he noted.

According to Kamotho, women and children, bore the biggest brunt of shame when answering to the call of nature when travelling.

Who will man and keep toilets clean?

Matatu Owners Association (MOA) chairman Simon Kimutai lauds the court decision, saying it was long overdue.

“We are totally in support of the ruling; it will alleviate the suffering of passengers especially our women,” says Kimutai adding with limited public amenities along the highways, drivers have no choice but stop near bushes to allow their passengers answer to the call of nature.

The man representing truck drivers has a contrary view. According to Nicholas Mbugua, secretary general, Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union and Allied Workers, although the idea is good, building of toilets will be an exercise in futility since maintaining them will be tricky.

“Having seen how bad public toilets are in towns, I am not sure who will man and keep them clean. Secondly there is a likelihood of cartels taking over the management of the washrooms,” says Mbugua denying truck drivers relieve themselves in thickets.

The official claims drivers usually relieve themselves at petrol stations, hotels, restaurants or lodgings.

“Our drivers never go to the bushes, it is bad manners even though in some hotels put access restriction on toilets,” states Mbugua.



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