February 2017: No Strings reports from our workshop in South Sudan, where Rosie Waller meets participants on the first day (story originally appeared as the first of three reports in the Newcastle Chronicle, UK)
The first morning of any workshop is a bit nerve-wracking. You’re faced with a sea of completely new faces, knowing you’re all stuck with each other for the next five or six days and in those first few minutes the culture gap always seems huge.
We chat to those participants based out in the field who are staying at the hotel while we wait for late-comers to arrive; they make jokes about swimming in the Nile with its crocodiles. They’re so tall! But they have excellent English. Others are quiet to begin, with but they’re all of them warm and charming.
They watch our new WASH film (water, sanitation, hygiene) and laugh in all the right places. It’s clear, they say, and engaging. The communities they work with are going to love it.
Next, participants make introductions through models of the villages and communities they work in using cardboard, twigs and grasses, paper, and plasticine, and describe some of the common challenges they face.
Houses are small, round and brown with pointy roofs, the one-room tukals or mud huts most villagers live in. Below little trees made from cottonwool balls on toothpicks we borrowed from the bar downstairs, they use plasticine to show areas of open defecation. There are even little plasticine figures of people squatting near rivers.
Open defecation is the way people have traditionally dealt with the daily call to nature here, as indeed they have most corners in the world, but where populations are forced to live together more densely the practice seriously increases the risk of diarrhoea, a sickness which frequently claims the lives of the young and vulnerable in poorer parts of the world, particularly where people are malnourished.
Many of our workshop participants are health promoters, and work in remote villages and camps for people displaced by conflict to encourage the building of latrines, the practice of handwashing with soap or ash from cooking fires at critical times (like after defecating and before eating), and the drinking of clean, treated water.
The words or poo-poo (as they say here), defecation and excreta are trotted out continuously by all of us, albeit somewhat self-consciously. Later we make a Mr Poop puppet, separating ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ so we can make use of the friendly sewing circle to have that conversation.
There are things in life that are common to all, whatever culture we come from. We fall in love the same, we cherish our children just the same. We all have a hang-up about pooping. We do it every day or so, every one of us, and yet it is such a taboo. It’s embarrassing!
The No Strings way of helping this conversation come out is to have people stuff a brown sock, sew in a few ‘lumps’, add a cardboard mouth and two button eyes, and create a disgusting, devilish Mr Poop character.
Eyes focused, hands busy, an easy sense of comradeliness builds around the table. June from the Ministry of Health tells us how young brides are sometimes banned from latrines by parents-in-law.
Sister Christine, a nurse, discusses how traditionally, poo-poo near the home is visible proof that fathers are providing well for their families. Laughing, our two younger female participants describe how young girls will climb trees with their friends and have pooping competitions from branches. For adults, too, long walks away from the men are a looked-forward-to time to chat and relax with friends. What fun! But where poo-poo gets trampled in and out of the home, of course, it’s a deeply serious issue.
We talk about how participants can get school children or mothers groups to make Mr Poop puppets, and in doing so open up about habits and concerns. Mr Poop then becomes a wonderful toy with horrible Germ friends (a mean little stick puppet) and an enemy Mr Soap (a hero bar of soap on a stick with a face on) and Clean Water (a bottle), puppets children can play with to work out for themselves the disgusting story of how disease spreads and let’s be honest about it, other people’s poo-poo gets into your mouth. In groups, our participants invent and practice some scenes. Some great sound effects go on, they’re wonderful actors!
We end the day almost like old friends.