Heroic but hunted ‘frog-men’ who save us from toilet shame

The frog-men at work in Tandale suburb, Kinondoni district.PHOTO | SEIF KANDILA

What you need to know:

  • He has been doing this for three years now in Kinondoni—a district where the first cases of cholera were reported two years ago, before the disease outbreak spread to 27 districts across the country. Over 200 people died of cholera in few months, government data show.

It’s Tuesday morning in one of Dar es Salaam’s largest slums—Tandale in Kinondoni District, and for Mr James*, 30, it’s another day to look out for one more “deal”—to empty any flooding toilet-pit in the neighbourhood.

He has been doing this for three years now in Kinondoni—a district where the first cases of cholera were reported two years ago, before the disease outbreak spread to 27 districts across the country. Over 200 people died of cholera in few months, government data show.

The dirty truth

James, the father of one, is considered indispensable in his area, Mtogole Street. “It’s only men like him that can help us empty pit latrines in these households where trucks cannot reach,’’ says Ms Juliana Sam, one of the residents, as she points to the remote and crowded informal houses in her neighbourhood.

But, James has to be watchful whenever he is contacted to go on site to empty a flooding pit latrine. Why? The municipal health authorities consider him and other people who do the manual empting of toilets, as wrongdoers under the Public Health Act of 2009.

“If I am caught, I could be fined up to Sh50, 000,’’ he says. “It has happened to me before. It happens very often to my colleagues,’’ recalls James during a recent interview with Your Health.

“I have no other job. I started doing this because I had no option. I completed Standard seven many years ago and couldn’t find a decent job. Diving in toilets has now become part of my life,’’ he adds.

Your Health has learnt that there have been efforts supported by various NGOs, such as WaterAid, to improve sanitation and the pit-empying practices in informal settlements but, people like James could not benefit from the projects beacuse it proved challenging to put them on board.

This happens at a time when data from the United Nations show that about 70 per cent of Dar es Salaam residents live in slums—the squalid overcrowded streets that are too narrow for vacuum trucks which empty toilets, to pass through.

The city, currently with about 4.1 million people—is expected to expand by more than 85 per cent through 2025, according to the African Development Bank, and could reach 21.4 million people by 2052.

But “..the extent of informal occupancy, population density, and income level has significant effects on cholera incidence in the city…’’ says a study done in Dar es Salaam, titled: “Informal Urban Settlements and Cholera Risk in Dar es Salaam which was published in PlosOne Journal.

Against this backdrop, there are 5,800 cases of cholera annually in Tanzania, according to data from Word Health Organisation (WHO). Yet, 18,500 children under the age of five die annually due to diarrhoea diseases emanating from how the country manages faeces and poor toilet hygiene.

An alternative to manual scavenging

But the story of James and other men like him, leaves a lot to be desired in Tanzania’s quest for proper toilet hygiene. James is one among several men who have earned a tag, “Frog-men,’’ or “Vyura” in Kiswahili because of what they do.

Their job entails diving in pit latrines with buckets and a shovel—as they dig out compacted faecal sludge by hands. That’s how they earn a living. When one “deal” is done, they wait for another.

Water Aid, through a community based organisation known as People’s Development Forum(PDF) has piloted a programme in Dar es Salaam, with the aim of turning pit-emptying into sustainable services that operate as businesses.

But, according to an environmental engineer from Ardhi University(ARU), Mr Edward Ruhinda, who is part of the PDF project, men like James are missing out on such opportunities to do formal business that could improve their lives because it’s challenging to engage them.

“I think there is need to invest in changing their mindset first,’’ he says.

Mr Ruhinda decries the fact that ‘frog-men’ should be looked at as wrong doers. “They can actually be given safer equipment which can access the narrow paths that lead to the informal settlements where vacuum trucks can’t pass.”

That can be done by introducing them to a solution known as Manual Pit Emptying Technology (MAPET)that uses mini-tankers, he says.

For longer-term solutions, Mr Ruhinda believes there is need for the overhaul of settlements, implementing a national sanitation policy and improving people’s attitude towards hygiene practices.

The forbidden job description

In Manzese suburb, Mr Adam* another “frogman,” says, “When I go out to empty a pit latrine with colleagues, we earn up to Sh150,000 per pit. One pit could take around 6 hours to empty. Then, we can divide the money amongst ourselves.”

“We use kerosene and dirty engine oil to change the colour of the faeces before emptying. We don’t have gloves or masks. We wash our hands with clean water after emptying the pit. That’s how we protect ourselves,’’ says Adam.

“Sometimes, we have to do it at night when local leaders can’t see us. But I prefer working during day to avoid the risk of accidents and falling into the pit at night. But sometimes the local leaders understand what we do and let us free,” he says.

According to the Chairman of Chakula Bora Street in Manzese ward, Mr Hamdani Habib, people in his street find it easier to work with the frog-men because they are always available — as compared to vacuum trucks. However, he insists—the frogmen are doing it illegally. Mr Habit says, “Emptying trucks come to the area once in a week or on special request. But also, people who live in narrow streets have poorly constricted toilets. Most pits get filled so easily because the water table is very high.”

“So, people find it cheaper to work with the frogmen who can be contacted any time for manual empting. But this is prohibited,’’ says Mr Habib in an interview with Your Health.

A study carried out in 35 unplanned sub-wards across Dar es Salaam and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2015, revealed that most households in the city delay emptying their toilets because of high cost.

“They use full pits beyond what is safe, face high costs even for unhygienic emptying, and resort to unsafe practices like flooding out,’’ says the study titled, “Pit Latrine Emptying Behaviour and Demand for Sanitation Services in Dar Es Salaam.”

Where does all go?

During a weeklong investigation, Your Health established that Dar es Salaam residents living on the banks of Mto Ng’ombe River in Kinondoni District, usually discharge faecal materials into the river because they can’t afford paying for emptying services for their toilets.

The river then carries the faeces along other contents and discharges into the Indian Ocean. This, according to environmental engineers, poses a risk of groundwater contamination.

According to the WHO, the distance between a water source and a latrine should be 50 meters but during the investigation in Kinondoni, a number of toilets in slum areas were found to be constructed between 5 to 7 meters closer to Mto Ngo’mbe River.

A street officer at Chakula Bora, Ms Salome Chulumba told Your Health that the authorities have been trying to educate the public on the dangers of poor handling of faecal matter but the efforts are yet to pay off.

According to the Acting Kinondoni Municipal Health Officer, Mr John Kijumbe, the circumstances in which the “frogmen” operate, put them at risk of diarrhoeal diseases and accidents.

“We have had cases where toilet pits collapsed on some of them,” says Mr Kijumbe and warns, “They could also carry germs to other members of the family because there are no measures in place to disinfect them when they come out of the pits.”

Mr Kijumbe admits, though, that the men have continued operating because there is no program in place yet to act as a substitute for the frog-men.

“You see, it’s illegal for people to build houses in unplanned settlements. This also means that sanitation authorities can’t take services to unplanned settlements.

As this happens, 57 per cent of the faecal sludge in the city is not safely disposed of, says the Shit Flow Diagram Report for Dar es Salaam released in 2015.

Environmental researchers believe the frogmen should not be condemned because they solve problems where the authorities have failed.

Mr Edward Ruhinda, the environmental engineer says, “We can’t condemn the so-called frogmen. They are still helpful.  For many years, they have been emptying flooding toilet pits in areas where the government or any volunteers cannot.”

However, the challenge is, he says, “Frog-men don’t have the means for testing or disposing the content they empty from toilets. They end up discharging the faecal sludge into nearby rivers or by digging pits at nearby places for disposal.”

“These unhygienic methods of emptying the toilets may end up putting the health of the society at stake due to the discharging of facecal matter in the environment.”

“Cases of outbreak of diarrheal diseases have a lot to do with the way we manage faeces and toilet hygiene. This also has a negative impact of the country’s economy,’’ he says.

Poor sanitation costs Tanzania Sh301 billion each year. This is equivalent to USD 206 million, according to a desk study carried out by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP).

*Not their real names