After the Haiti earthquake, a life-changing event: Families dig latrines with Oxfam's help

By Coco McCabe
Andrena Attis says the new latrine her family has built with Oxfam's help has made life safer for them. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam

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Follow the flies. That was the idea behind a simple but eye-opening public health lesson Oxfam brought to the people of Tapion, a small community in the Haitian hills of Petit Goave.  And it has helped to change their lives in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti almost one year ago.

Most of the 118 families here didn’t have latrines and when the January 12 quake turned many of their houses into heaps of rubble--upending their lives--stomach illnesses and cases of diarrhea began to climb. Making matters worse, the pump that had filled a cistern with water on which families relied had broken.

In camps for earthquake survivors, people had easy access to clean water and sanitation services thanks to the effort of aid groups. Should the people of Tapion abandon their community and go to a camp, too?

It might have been tempting—if Oxfam hadn’t launched an initiative to provide similar assistance to Tapion, allowing families to stay where they were while making a long-term improvement in the quality of their lives. What changed? Household sanitation, starting with an unforgettable lesson about feces and ending up with latrines—100 of them, dug by willing families and now ready for completion by Oxfam, which is building the small hut that surrounds each pit.

A key part of Oxfam’s water and sanitation program is hygiene education. But before it could carry that out effectively in Tapion, said Frantz Jean Lys, a public health promotion supervisor, it realized residents needed a decent place to go to the bathroom—and that would require changing some traditional practices. Most people were relieving themselves out in the open.
So, to convey just how unsanitary that solution was, public health workers put on a presentation that showed how flies can travel from excrement to food, contaminating the food with germs.

As that reality sank in, Oxfam invited families to join in a campaign to build household latrines across their community. Andrena Attis jumped at the chance.

An investment

A young mother with a husband and two children, Attis has been living in a tent with 10 people since the quake destroyed her home. All that’s left is the concrete slab on which the long—and leaky—tent is now pitched.

But on a rise surrounded by plantain trees stands the family’s shiny new latrine, its corrugated metal walls glinting in the sun—irresistible to her children.

“All day they’re opening the door and going inside,” said Attis, adding that the new latrine gives her a sense of pride, too.

The family had longed for the convenience—and had used a neighbor’s latrine off and on—but couldn’t afford one of its own. Until now.

And it required a serious investment. To get the cash to hire the man to dig the pit at 100 gourdes per foot, Attis’s family had to sell a goat and some chickens. But with Oxfam providing the materials for the shed that surrounds the latrine, now was the time to make the commitment, said Attis.

“It’s better for us now,” she said. “It’s a lot safer.” And with cholera, a deadly waterborne disease, sweeping across the country, the latrine is more welcome than ever.

“Now there’s a cholera epidemic, so even if we had no latrine, we would have continued using the neighbor’s,” said Yvon Attis, Andrena’s brother.

Both of them have been very worried about the disease, and have taken to heart the lessons on how to prevent it. Hand washing is key—before eating and after going to the bathroom. Yvon Attis said he’s going to stick with those simple steps religiously.

And for water? The cistern is a short walk from their house—just a few minutes—and Oxfam has been filling it regularly with a water truck. Soon the organization will have the pump fixed, too.

Clean water and sanitation have made it easier for Attis and her family to stay on the land they own and farm. But there’s more work to do to return to the life they once had. The family needs a house.

“I hope to rebuild,” said Attis, recalling how frightened her children were when Hurricane Tomas howled  across Haiti recently, whipping at their tent. “But I don’t know when.”