THE BLOG

How A Toilet Can Change Your Life

06/12/2016 11:57 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 10:12 GMT

The Congolese sun is gleaming off the earthen floor but I feel cold. I'm knee-to-knee with a tall, dignified woman called Bawili, who's talking me through the day her teenage daughter was gang-raped. Bawili speaks quietly, simply - the details are the more harrowing for it.

It was 2009, and Bawili's daughter Ebinda had gone into the bushes near their home in Mwandiga Trois village, in South Kivu province, eastern Congo to relieve herself. After dark, the children and their mother would always go together, it wasn't safe otherwise. But it was early evening, still light, and Bawili told the 15yr old to go alone.

Ebinda was attacked from behind, thrown to the ground and raped repeatedly. She doesn't know how many men there were. Bawili tells me that as soon as she saw her daughter stumbling from the undergrowth, she knew what had happened. The teen was in hospital for three days - the other girls and women on the ward were also victims of attacks by marauding gangs, men roaming the countryside, looking for food, money, and easy targets in a lawless country destroyed by civil war.

Ebinda, now 22, became pregnant as a result of the attack. Her son is a sweet, malnourished six-year-old, who peeps at me shyly. He should be living in an Eden - verdant hills and rich soils offer the chance of two full harvests a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nation - which covers a staggering 2.3 million square kilometres - also has copper, diamonds, gold, uranium and coltan, used in every mobile phone in the world. And yet it remains a cruel place, scraping along the bottom of world rankings for almost every measure of human development.

I've never been to a place that is at once so beautiful, obviously abundant, and yet so thoroughly broken. Armed militia, government soldiers and the kleptocratic elites who purportedly run the country still prey on civilians. Farms are neglected by people unwilling to invest effort in land they may have to flee again. UN-branded schools are dilapidated, the roads are almost impassable. Pot-bellied, shoeless children fight over our empty water bottles, because there aren't any toys, and they can't afford school. We hesitate to eat our lunch in the village, because the kids won't have anything until the evening, and even then they won't get much.

But strange as it may seem, in a place where massacres still happen, where kidnappings and beatings and murders go unpunished, the first defence might be a toilet.

Determined not to let others suffer like Ebinda has, Bawili is on a mission. She believes that if her family had had a toilet, the attack may not have happened. She can't stop the conflict at a national level, but she can do the best to improve life in her village.

Bawili has become the president of the village Community Health Club, an initiative that trains locals to learn and share skills in hygiene, nutrition and childcare. Villagers come together to discuss health matters, encourage their neighbours and dig pit latrines across the village, including at Bawili's house.

"We were ashamed to use the bush. Now, we're free and safe and we have privacy," Bawili tells me, with steel in her eyes. And containing human waste means drinking water isn't contaminated, feet can't transfer faeces into homes, flies can't contaminate food and utensils. The bottom line - people get sick less often, fewer children die of preventable illnesses like diahorrea, and vulnerable people can stay safer in a dangerous country.

The Club is supported by the UK charity Toilet Twinning, part of Tearfund, which raises funds by encouraging people to twin their toilet at home or at work with a long-drop latrine somewhere in the world. For £60 you get a certificate with a picture of your toilet's 'twin' and its GPS location. My toilet is twinned with a loo in Bihar, northern India. My mum's toilet is twinned with a latrine in Bawili's village. It's a quirky way to address a serious problem.

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picture credit: Ralph Hodgson / Toilet Twinning

Tearfund and Toilet Twinning provide the initial training - but it's the community who make change happen. The very act of building toilets together is, Bawili says, a way the fractured people of Mwandiga Trois can invest in a shared future.

"We're learning to work together," Bawili is smiling now. "We encourage the whole community to unite and to love each other. If there is no love, we cannot build a good society." The simple toilet represents not just individual dignity, but unity, security and, perhaps, a nation's chance for a better future. When a country has gone down the toilet, it's the very place you should start rebuilding.

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To twin your loo, go to www.toilettwinning.org