The proud rollout of ‘a floating toilet’ by one member of Bayelsa State House of Assembly outraged the Nigerian blogosphere. Nigerian netizens decried the woeful ostentation of the wretched contraption. The well-choreographed ‘commissioning’ ceremony appeared to have cost a lot more than horrible loo itself.
Kate Owoko cobbled the ‘floating latrine’ together with corrugated iron sheets. She sited it on the creeks of the rural backwater of Amassoma. The structure’s raison d’être was to shelter her constituents while they pass their excrement into water and watch it swim like flotsam and jetsam.
The mockery of a toilet, which is as nauseating as the matrix of civilizational backwardness it was erected to address, threw the ‘benefiting’ community into wild jubilation. The floating latrine had a wow factor in their eyes. It represented a small climb to a sense of dignity.
The women sang and danced and celebrated what they regarded as the end of their compulsory exhibitionism. They may now answer the call of nature without exposing their privates. It didn’t matter that everyone in the village would have to wait for their turn on a long queue to experience the four walls of the dystopian lavatory.
The contrast of the visceral joy of the village and the vicarious fury of the social media commentariate illustrates the verity of the relativity of beauty.
The people’s celebration of the gift of ‘the floating toilet’ was an honest show of gratitude to their benefactor. The miserable alms did not merit exultation. But beggars can’t be choosers. It takes a sober look to appreciate the context that made the eyesore a godsend.
While some Nigerians take a proper toilet for granted, it is an exotic idea to other Nigerians. Many have yet to use that basic facility for the very first time. There are civilizational time zones in Nigeria that have not received the memo of a decent toilet model: a person of privilege that has never ventured beyond his yuppified neighborhood cannot imagine the wealth of squalor in those places.
Owoko’s ‘floating toilet’ was the closest the people of Amassoma have ever come to anything resembling the privacy of toileting. They have been defecating in the open since Mungo Park. They defecate into the same river they bathe in, wash in and drink from.
In response to the blowback, Owoko explained that she built the ‘floating toilet’ in answer to the urgent pleas of the women of the area. To the extent that she acknowledged that crying need, I give her some credit. Her tokenistic gesture, as terrible as it is, puts her above the more prominent Bayelsans leaders who gave that locality nothing more than absolute neglect.
This very village that had to beg for a ‘floating toilet’ is the birthplace of DSP Alamieyeseigha, the first civilian governor of Bayelsa state. Alamieyeseigha had the opportunity to humanize the living conditions of his kinsfolk. But he spent his time in office robbing the treasury and building a private cocoon for himself. He was so invested in his own aggrandizement that he could not afford to distract himself with his people’s need for clean toilets.
After he was disgraced out of office, his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, took over. But his rise didn’t change the toileting regime of Amassoma. Jonathan would later go on to become Vice President and President. The people still didn’t receive any alternative to defecating in the river.
Dieziani Allison-Madueke is also Bayelsan. As Minister of Transport, she reportedly shed tears at the sight of the death-trap that was Lagos-Ibadan. However, when she became Minister of Petroleum, she preoccupied herself with funneling Nigerian petrodollars to herself and her cronies. She couldn’t muster the compassion to ‘sacrifice’ a fraction of her loot to build public toilets in riverine communities so that her fellow women can remember her for good.
The most overlooked fact in the harsh reviews of ‘the floating toilet’ is that Amassoma has been under some kind of government authority since 1914. It has had indigenous leaders since 1960. It has always had a councilor, a local government chairman, a member of the House of Assembly, a member of the House of Representatives, a senator and a governor. It welcomes politicians and their manifestoes. Yet, it remains frozen in a state of nature.
Amassoma distills the generic fate of many Nigerian communities. They are courted during elections and abandoned after the victory. When a ‘thoughtful’ politician deigns to remember them close to another election, he thinks up a dismal solution that would make no dent in the situation.
Owoko’s floating toilet is a misshapen attempt at voter bribery. It is a puny monument that should immortalize its architect’s poverty of imagination. It is an ugly, sickening facility, unworthy of a domestic animal.
‘Honorable’ Owoko would never consider the ridiculous toilet she gifted her constituents to be good enough for her own self. Though she would naturally judge it demeaning to have to use the loathsome ‘floating toilet’, she bequeathed the structure to her constituents because she believed that they didn’t deserve anything better. Her grudging charity donated to the electorate what her personal taste would forbid her to receive.
‘The floating toilet’ is descriptive of the quality of the generosity of the average Nigerian politician. He builds inferior schools that he won’t allow his kids to be miseducated in. He builds ill-equipped hospitals he can’t visit for treatment. He drills boreholes he can’t drink from.
‘The floating toilet’ is a fake solution that teases and perpetuates the problem. Before Owoke’s project, the people were defecating in the river. After it, the people will continue to defecate into the river. The only difference is that her architecture would enable the people to pollute the waters from a modest height.
Owoko obviously constructed the toilet without environmental impact assessment. Competent assessors must move to determine whether its usage would not pose a serious threat to the environment.
The ‘floating toilet’ is likely to draw a large number of users. Heavy traffic to that makeshift restroom would transform the receptacle river into a cauldron of excreta. The daily deposit of waste into the common water source will stir a plague that will leave the people worse off than before.
The smelly but ineluctable romance of many Nigerians with their own excreta is the reason why cholera makes an annual harvest of human lives. Every year the outbreak sweeps across the six geopolitical zones. The headlines scream the death count, the survivors bury their dead and the toxic brew of river and sewage continues to flow.
Unicef estimates that 125,000 children under the age of 5 die because of diarrhea every year. This is mainly due to dirty water, poor sanitation and hygiene.
In many places in Nigeria, a decent toilet is a luxury. Even in the big cities, people make do with pit latrines. Others defecate into polythene bags and ‘shotput’ it.
Millions of our fellow citizens ease themselves in this manner. A bird eye-view of the Nigerian landscape will give the snapshot of a vast pigsty, choking with filth.
It’s a shame that, in 2017, Nigerians celebrate a ‘floating toilet’ and promise the politician who provides it a second term.
When will Nigeria cease to be a mess?
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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