Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Make 'em laugh

Are you able to laugh at yourself?
Are you able to make other people laugh?
Are you able to talk seriously when you make them laugh?

Jack Sim is a veritable guru. These are the three questions he told us been asked by Mister Condom, in his introduction speech this morning. And so Mr. Condom became the Kung Fu master, as it were, for Mr. Toilet. But it’s not kung fu the two were studying. It was how to make the un-talkable talkable (I do hope there is a film made one day! Jackie Chan, or whoever the big action heroes of the day are. Maybe Matt Damon, since he does a lot of work around sanitation already. But I digress.)

“We must turn poop culture into pop culture” Sim told us. This means making toilets sexy, turning going to the toilet into a news story, and, most importantly, talking about it in language that’s accessible to everyone. Often people shroud toilet talk in acceptable academic terms and “although it’s correct it is not effective… it’s very difficult for ordinary people to understand.

This is why instead of talking about 'fecal matter' we talk about 'shit'.

The World Toilet Summit 2013 is quite possibly one of the classiest places shit has ever been talked about. Since the conference has officially started there were snazzy VIP cars waiting in front of the hotel to take us to the conference (To be honest I would have preferred my rickshaw. Going to try to sneak past those friendly hosts tomorrow.)

The welcoming ceremony involved, besides the speech mentioned above, several dance performances, some singing (they have a lovely national anthem!) and the rather amusingly dramatic unveiling of a toilet with flashing lights and dramatic theme music (the toilet itself didn’t look to be anything exceptional… I was half expecting a Dalak to roll up and plunge it. That’s all it was wanting to complete the bizarreness of the moment. When it's my turn to stage the summit...

After two hours of pomp and circumstance the World Toilet Summit was declared open by the Mayor of Solo, which meant we could go for tea and coffee before launching into the series of “talks by 45 reputable and proficient speakers.” I adore the Indonesian way of phrasing things. It’s usually correct, just not the way most native English speakers would say it. For example on the airplane the English safety video began “Let us enlighten you as to the safety features of this aircraft.”

A subject that came up several times across the course of the day was the state of last night’s toilets. The first speaker asked who had visited them, and then asked me of all the people there to comment. It was a suitably awkward moment which confirmed that my public speaking skills still have a long way to go.

The second speech was by Dr. Clara Greed, who began by laying into the toilets pretty fiercely (so fiercely in fact that others who hadn’t been to the toilets kept coming to me for the rest of the day to confirm ‘was it really that bad?’) She actually had a go at quite a few other things as well: urilifts, pay-per-use-toilets, and unisex cubicles all got black marks.

She talks in much the same way she writes: passionately and logically, but bordering on the extremist. Pay gates she called ‘false economy’ and made the valid point that a lot of tourists aren’t familiar with British coinage, and, anyway, use their credit cards when traveling because it’s easier than changing money, so they won’t necessarily have the means to pay. Unisex cubicles she considers ‘an assault to modesty’ and pointed out that it is prohibitive to certain cultures where there are taboos about men and women sharing the same facilities. The Jubiloo consequently was flagged as the epitome of both these evils, at which point it got personal for me. It may not be an ideal situation to charge, but at the same time Healthmatic are doing a remarkable job providing a quality service in the current climate of un-subsidized toilet provision. It’s a free market, so users can always go to the South Bank Centre if they object that strongly. What makes it wrong is when there isn’t freedom of choice.

Talking about her lecture over lunch my dining companions were shocked that I was pro-unisex cubicle… and I equally surprised that they were so solidly against. I suppose that’s my cultural naivite showing (and I know it’s there. I think I’m reasonably open minded and accepting, but there is a lot I haven’t seen…) They cited fear of shame and rape as an argument against sharing, even when I pointed out that the toilet is attended whenever it is open. I know it’s too culturally ingrained to argue that people should get over it, because unisex toilets reduce queuing times and make good sense in an environment where you can’t predict the gender ratio on any given day.

Cultural exchange and learning works both ways.

Another presenter questioned whether it is better for tourist destinations to cater to the western market by providing seat toilets, or to push to educate their visitors on the health benefits of a good squat (which are many.)

The speeches after lunch may have been good, but I can’t say for sure. It’s always that point in any conference that makes you start to question the purpose of life, and wasn’t helped by the fact that one was mostly in Indonesian. To be fair though, I can only imagine what it’s like for the majority of the people at the conference to whom English isn’t a native language. We westerners are spoiled in more ways than our toilets.

The last speaker blew all the others out of the water for sheer polish and engagement. Victoria Bollam of Lixil came on strong with a pop quiz;

How much waste will be produced by humans in 2025?

Taking the average length of a poo as 20cm it will be enough to stretch to the sun and back… twice! She didn’t get into how we account for diarrhea which doesn’t really have a measurable length, but then I guess if we hit those millennium development goals there will be a lot less diarrhea to worry about.)

Her speech was about the importance of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and branding, and Lixil’s brand new social contribution programme ISIS, which aims to provide sanitation in schools for 2,018,000 school children by 2018. The programme is named Isis after the Egyptian Goddess because her hat resembles a throne which resembles a western toilet.

All this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of my 20 pages of notes, let alone the conversations I had during the day and the people I met. But I will leave you for now with empty promises to dig deeper into the other stuff.

I was so wiped out by the end of the day, that I hardly dared network at the cultural dinner (which was in the stunning Mangkunegaran Palace) for fear I would start spouting worse nonsense than usual. So I ate yet more peculiarly delicious Indonesian food (new favorite is coconut ice cream) watched the dancers and smiled a lot.

Happily there were toilet facilities provided at the palace. Seats and toilet paper and everything. They even came complete with rather pretty lizards! 


  1. So how to sell a social contribution program to a budding commercial developing world? What is the balance so far between providing provision for sanitation to improve health and tourist friendly sanitation in order to promote visiting?

  2. Ah, you should totally have dressed up as a Dalek for your national costume.

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