Thursday, October 3, 2013

Celebrity Status

I keep thinking my life in toilet-land can get no stranger. Happily, I keep being proven wrong.

It started relatively normally. I woke up late-ish with a full intention to miss the bus, but they waited for me, bless them, so no rickshaw for me this morning.

The morning agenda was three concurrent tracks, so one of those deals where all the talks you most want to see were scheduled at the same time. I learned about toilets in Russia that generate their power through Urine,  Green buildings in Italy that reduce the need for air conditioning through being covered in foliage, a former banker who now trains toilet entrepreneurs in India, and the five pillars of Indonesia’s toilet initiatives.

A lot of the presentations contained a lot of wordy slides, statistics, and goals that are outside the realm of what I, as an amateur, could understand competently on the fly. Two presentations particularly stood out for their clarity, polish and engagement: The ones presented by Toilet Hackers.

I identify with Toilet Hackers for a lot of reasons. They are young, hip, nerdy, and interested in finding creative ways to address the global sanitation crisis. The premise is that decentralization is key- there are so many places with so many unique challenges that no one set of regulations or recommendations can cover them all. So they create tool kits to help people invent their own initiatives. They run on the idea of open space- bringing people together with only a very broad agenda, and creating room for dialogue and action to happen. 

The first presentation was entitled ‘Girls helping Girls.’ 23% of girls in India drop out of school by the age of 13. Other developing countries have similar statistics. The problem is largely due to inadequate toilets and a culture of shame around the menstrual cycle. Their project Girls For Girls aims to address this by empowering school girls in the US with a tool kit to fundraise and raise awareness, creating a safe space to talk about the issues.

After tea the co-founder Michael Lindenmayer spoke on a completely different topic: How to see tourists as potential contributors to society. Over the course of the conference there has been a lot of talk about clean toilets leading to more tourists. But he went deeper into the question of how to engage tourists not only as sight-seers, but as potential investors, philanthropists and collaborators. Don't show tourists only the good things and hide the bad. Let them see the whole picture, tell them stories, inspire them to get involved. 

An observation he made in the Q&A session stuck with me. No solution is eternally stable or sustainable. There will be new technologies and inventions for as long as man exits (and longer for all we know). Companies and agendas will shift. But the one sure thing is that all 7 billion people in it will need to do their business. Making it one of the surest markets out there! 

After the speeches had finished for the day there was to be a carnival, and those who were interested were invited to borrow traditional costumes and join the parade. I’m always one for an adventure, so I was in the group of about 20 who were bundled into a bus with packed lunches.

We were driven to the Mayor’s house to get changed. It was a stunning, absolutely palatial building (or rather set of buildings.) We were brought to a room round the back, where everyone was dressed. We had been hoping for something elegant like the dancers we had seen, but it was more military than anything else. The girls were given white trousers and shirts, red jackets, and a sarong with a belt that went round and round (and round and round and round….)

The outfit was finished off with black caps which were a bit like jockey caps, but with a few extra spikes and bulges. We were told we all looked a bit like Princess Anne. My head was far too large for any of the hats, so it was balanced rather precariously on top of my head.

After we were dressed we had a brief photo shoot with the mayor and some other important looking people. We were then packed back onto the bus, where we had to wait for some time, getting quite fidgety and hot and sticky. Finally when the diplomats had finished being photographed we followed a police escort out the gate to a large football field where all the rest of the Carnival Participants were waiting.

That’s when we started to realize the scale of the thing. There were 4000 participants including dance troupes, school groups, military, brands who were selling at the conference and a large toilet flotilla surrounded by rodents and cockroach puppets. And among all these people we were the guests of honour… which meant we got to ride in open top horse drawn carriages.

It was, for all the world, like being royalty. Everyone wanted pictures with us while we were waiting. They were also delighted when we took pictures of them. When the procession started the streets were lined with people waving and taking pictures. We crawled along for over an hour and must have passed at least a ten thousand people along the street (much more if you count the cars and motorcycles that got held up as we passed.)

We smiles and waved all the way until our wrists were cramped and our jaw ached. But it was impossible not to smile! Whether people were waving because they were impressed or the westerners in ill-fitting outfits was a bit of a joke we may never know, but either way it was a most memorable experience. One of the most incredible parts was the eye contact. I’m not sure I’ve ever looked directly at so many people. I remember a fair few too. Sometimes they would smile back, sometimes burst into giggles or hide behind their friends, but they all acknowledged the moment of connection in their own way.

At the end of the parade we were escorted off the carriages to listen to a special ‘Mister Toilet’ song and watch a performance in which all the rodents were vanquished by the introduction of good sanitary practices. This involved quite a lot of acrobatics.

The city had been working on this event for over a year. What better example of using spectacle to get an audience for your cause? The main purpose of the exercise was to make sure that the toilet Summit wasn’t just a thing that happened in the city, but an event that connected back to the community. It was not only a show to impress the visitors, but, as Michael suggested in his talk a chance to get potential leverage the power of tourists to be connected to the city in a more meaningful way than just coming to experience culture. For that day we became a unique part of the culture, in an experience that couldn’t have happened without that unique mix of people and interests.

The only sad part of the day was starting to say goodbyes, as various people are starting to trickle away. But I have made so many amazing connections from all over the world, so hopefully it won’t be goodbye forever. There is a real community in the toilet world, and people who have known each other for decades. I even met a couple who met working on toilets (I guess there’s hope for me after all!) As Jack Sim said on the bus back, when we were all flush with the success of the carnival: “Shit is sticky… The people that shit together stick together.”


  1. Hope some photos are being prepared to share with your "community"?

  2. That sounds amazing and bizarre, I look forward to seeing your photos.