The question about why many Nigerians choose to defecate in open spaces even when they can access hygienic toilets has defied rational answers. Nearly two weeks ago, the global community marked the yearly World Toilet Day on 19 November 2016. A depressing report attributed to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and published in the Vanguard newspaper of 22 November 2016 noted the difficulty many citizens encounter accessing clean toilets within the country. Specifically, more than 51 million Nigerians, according to the UNICEF, do not have access to proper and functioning toilets. This makes for distasteful reading.
While lack of good and hygienic toilets must account for people defecating in public spaces, that should not be taken as the sole reason. Inappropriate behaviour comes in various ways. Our poor and disgusting toilet habit has marked us out as an unhygienic society where a majority of people urinate and defecate indiscriminately in open spaces. Every society is known by the way it responds to, treats, and manages human waste. It is common to find in our streets and suburbs people eating, drinking, sleeping, and dancing beside human faeces.
When pressed by the call of nature, some people respond in the most nauseating manner that makes other people wonder whether we are any better than animals that inhabit our planet. Many Nigerians seem to have that bizarre interest in defecating in public places such as airport terminal buildings, bus stations, petrol stations, footpaths, public roads, playing ground, prayer houses, forests, sports stadium, motor parks, and other public places you can imagine. I am puzzled by certain aspects of human behaviour. Why, for example, do people we consider normal choose to defecate in public spaces even when they are close to toilets either in their homes, workplaces, or in public areas?
I must acknowledge some people reside in areas without decent toilets or facilities for easing themselves. To this group of people, there is no alternative to defecating in open spaces. This is perhaps why they find it more convenient and satisfactory to ease themselves in open spaces without shame, without blinking an eye, and without expressing concern for the impact their unsanitary behaviour would have on the health of other human beings. As far as they are concerned, we cannot blame them and disregard a system that has failed to provide for their basic needs. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they are not.
People who defecate in public spaces, especially those who have access to clean toilets, should be regarded as public enemies. They contribute to contamination and pollution of our environment, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume. All of these add to the relatively short lifespan of our population, men and women, boys and girls, the weak and the strong. When we complain that people are dying much younger in our current generation, we must consider the effect of our unhealthy practices on the natural life of our people.
Ordinarily, how, when, and where people prefer to relieve themselves of the food wastes lodged in their bowels should be a matter for their personal decision. Everyone’s toilet practice and routine should not attract commentary in national newspapers essentially because it is a private matter. However, that private practice becomes something of a nuisance and a matter of public interest when it interferes with our right to enjoy our natural environment, the air we breathe and our freedom to access public facilities without spitting, without expelling phlegm from our mouth, without hissing, and without overing our noses and our mouths. These nonverbal behaviours suggest our environment has been polluted by people who defecated and/or urinated in improper places.
United Nations (UN) agencies have taken special interest in unsanitary practices by Nigerian citizens. This is why every year, during the World Toilet Day that is usually celebrated in November, UN agencies make the point to remind us about how we constitute public health hazards to ourselves through dishonourable conduct. In 2012, for example, Nigeria was conferred with the dishonourable title, according to the UN, of one of the top five countries in the world in which many citizens freely defecated in public spaces. In the year, the UN report said 34 million Nigerians defecated in open places. When compared with the latest figure of more than 51 million Nigerians who were reported last week to have defecated in public, you could see that our bad behaviour is getting worse. More people are joining the bandwagon of men and women behaving badly. Specifically within four years, a total of 17 million Nigerians saw good reason to join their countrymen and women who defecate in open spaces.
The yearly UN reports constitute an adverse vote of confidence on the Federal and state governments for failing to provide for the healthcare needs of the people. In 2012, Geoffrey Njoku, UNICEF Communication Specialist (Media and External Relations) in Nigeria at the time, quoted a combined report by the UNICEF and the World Health Organisation that said that “34 million Nigerians practise open defecation and Nigeria is amongst top five countries in the world with largest number of people defecating in the open.”
One obvious impact of this unsanitary health practice, according to Njoku, is that an estimated 194,000 children under five years of age die of diarrhoea every year. Respiratory or breathing related diseases also take the lives of about 240,000 children every year. According to Njoku: “These are largely preventable with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene.” It is easy to see the direct connection between open defecation, pollution of air, and contamination of water. When human excreta are deposited carelessly in habitable places, they cause serious health dangers to public sources of water supply.
I have heard some people try to justify why they defecate openly while others offer numerous reasons to justify their dreadful public health misbehaviour. One of the reasons, perhaps the most ludicrous, is that urinating or defecating in open spaces gives people that feeling of freedom they cannot achieve anywhere else. Other people say they defecate in public spaces because they couldn’t find decent public toilets within reach. Even those who can access toilets say they cannot use them because they are uninviting, largely grubby, and they give off putrid smell. Most of the reasons point to negligence by government over people’s needs. If this is the case, governments must be held accountable for the growing poor health habits.
While it is incontestable that public toilets are not available or badly managed in many public places in urban centres and virtually non-existent in rural areas, this reason does not explain why people who have access to decent toilets still prefer to defecate in open spaces.
Regardless of what anyone might say and the reasons why people justify defecating in public spaces, that practice signals our society’s poor attitude or response to public hygiene at personal and community levels. It is common, for example, to see people cook and consume food in front of broken and stinking sewage, in front of foul smelling gutters and culverts. If you want to see the extent of public health hazards in Nigeria, all you need is a short walk through streets that are filled with heaps of dirt. It is in this disgusting environment that people sit, eat, chat noisily, and conduct daily business.
In many cities, you will find streets, backyards, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, clubs, and the so-called prayer houses that are immersed in mountains of human waste, filth, and industrial wastes. There must be something in our system that helps us to fight off attacks by diseases that breed and run around in dirty environments.
Our repulsive attitude to good sanitation is a form of epidemic on its own. I recall a question someone asked four years ago at a conference that examined public attitudes to hygiene. The man wondered: “What would make an educated man, in a suit, buy cooked corn on the roadside and throw the cob out of the window of a moving vehicle when he is done?” That shameful conduct, I would argue, also explains the behaviour of a woman or man who defecates by the side of a road on the belief that if no one could observe them directly, it must be alright for them to disgorge the contents of their bladder or bowel at any place and time. It is this contempt, this disrespect for the inviolability of public health and our environment that exposes the rotten and mechanistic quality of life we live.
Widespread public defecation in open spaces has reached a level that calls for serious attention by government and private organisations. Coercion cannot change people’s attitude to personal and public hygiene. It is possible that a sustained campaign of public health education can help to make a difference. But the success of public health education campaigns will depend on the willingness by governments at all levels to provide decent toilets for public use.