Shit, gu, out in the open

Michael Roberts

 An outhouse at a local talaivar’s property in Kayts —Pic by Roberts in June 2010


 A latrine built by Sewalanka in Jaffna and a model of the sort that was not adopted by the INGOs who built plywood toilets at Manik Farm (see below)

A recent news item, reproduced in full below, brings into our consciousness the defecation practices of the Sri Lankan populace, our people that is. In this shitty terrain there is, significantly, no difference between the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim Moors, Malays (Ja) and Others. A significant proportion of the Sri Lankan people, perhaps even a majority, prefer to defecate in the open and are pretty foul in their attentiveness to toilet cleanliness if they use a public toilet or outhouse. I begin by presenting a news item presented by Shanika Sriyananda in the Sunday Observer of 3rd April 2011 before proceeding to expand on the ramifications – the “smell” in a metaphoric sense – arising from this generalized island-wide shortcoming.

200,000 people defecate in the open

Nearly 200,000 people still defecate openly in Sri Lanka, a spokesman for the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, said. Executive Director CEJ, Hemantha Withanage said that according to the public perspectives’ study conducted by the CEJ it had been found that hundreds of schools do not have proper toilets, female students and teachers especially are affected as a result of this situation. Most cities have poorly maintained toilets. Many toilets built in the Dry Zone are not used due to lack of water and they have been converted into animal shelters and most plantation workers and families are compelled to share only one or two toilets for many line houses. “Though the situation in Sri Lanka is far better than South Asia we need to address the remaining issues relating to water and sanitation”, he said.

The United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aims at achieving a 50 percent reduction in the number of people who do not have proper sanitation by 2015. The fourth South Asian Conference on Sanitation in Sri Lanka (SACOSAN IV) which will be held from April 4 to 8 will bring over 500 experts and SAARC Ministers dealing with water and sanitation to discuss the future course of action to meet the MDG goal by 2015.He said that SACOSAN was to monitor the progress achieved in the South Asia region and it would provide political support of the South Asian nations to achieve the MDG targets.

However, WaterAid’s Regional Advocacy and Policy Advisor for South Asia Mustafa Talpur, commending Sri Lanka’s achievement in providing safe drinking water and better sanitation has warned all countries in South Asia except the Maldives and Sri Lanka which were currently off track to meet the MDG target to halve the proportion of people living without access to a toilet. “With every second a person obliged to defecate in the open and every eighth person having little or no choice but to drink contaminated water, the promises and resolutions passed by these nations have not been clearly realised”, he said.

Mustafa called upon the governments of SAARC countries to meet the sanitation commitments set out in the Delhi Declaration by setting clear budget allocations, providing cost-effective interventions and targeting resources towards poor and unserved communities and putting in place effective monitoring and measuring procedures at national level to increase accountability.


In discussing conditions in the IDP Camps, from those at Menik Farm in Vavuniya to the smaller clusters in the Jaffna Peninsula, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan told me in passing that the fishing and coastal families who had been provided with outhouse toilets alongside new dwellings after the tsunami disaster preferred to defecate n the open.

    Taken together, therefore, these items of information lead me to address deep-seated cultural practices – literally squatting practices. Let me emphasize the fundamental character of such tendencies by recalling the utter bewilderment revealed on two different occasions, one by a young Australian bloke in Bali and another by a West Indian friend when confronted with a toilet that had no seat, but was a squatting pan of the type favoured by “natives. The young Australian was part of a small group I was traveling with in the early 1980s and his remarks on the topic should be merged with the cultural shock generated by his confrontation with teeming Asian life. The impact was so great that he had a traumatic dream which  jerked him into sitting up and hitting the wall of our bedroom at a cheap beach doss-house where three of us were sharing a double bed.

    The antipathy and distaste runs both ways. Some Asians shy away from WCs with seats, or, for that matter, smelly outhouses that are not open to the elements.

    As the conversation with Sarvananthan indicates, this issue is of significance when discussing the IDP camps and their sanitary arrangements. At the several IDP camps at Menik Farm, of course, the government and the several INGO/NGO organizations willingly supporting the enterprise, were faced with a massive crisis in seeking to sustain some 280,000 people at short notice. In Zones 2, 3 and 4 they were constructing shelters, toilet and other facilities on the run as thousands of Tamil IDPS were bussed in. This meant the use of tents rather than cadjan huts or other more climate-friendly and longer-lasting temporary shelters of the type used in the Jaffna Peninsula and Camp Zero in Vavuniya.

    However, the issue of suitable dwellings and toilets was aggravated by the bureaucratic rigidities of the INGO organisations and the belief that the type of toilets used elsewhere would suffice in Sri Lanka. They insisted on building toilet pits with plywood which were not only unstable and bound to deteriorate; but not able to withstand the gully-sucker machines that cleaned them out. This was one facet of the situation that earned Rajiva Wijesinha’s ire: “when it was pointed out that gully suckers drew out the plywood too, one of the enormously expensive UN experts in the field blamed the operators of the gully suckers. They had been advised, it seems, to suck cautiously, and leave a residue of gunge to protect the plywood.”[1]

    My brief ‘incursions’ into this arena indicated considerable tension between local (Tamil in most instances) and foreign NGO personnel on some issues. Both sets of officers, let me insist, were welfare-oriented and were rendering yeoman service (on different pay scales mind you); but there were some “culture-clashes” now and then.

    Culture can be of considerable significance. Toilet practice is an area (both literally and metaphorically) where the ramifications are as weighty as smelly. The IDP camps suffered from an insufficiency of toilets, apart from some unsuitable toilets built on INGO specifications. But, as the Sunday Observer’s news item indicates, one has to take note of the fact that a fair proportion of the refugees preferred to defecate in the open rather than utilizing the available toilets (such as they were). As some aid-workers told me in June 2010, in mid-2009 there were several pockets of land used for shitting where one could distinguish two-day turds (Australian-English for lumps of shit) from four-day and six-day turds. Again, during a confidential chat with a Rotarian and a senior army officer both laughingly referred to a roadway along side one IDP camp that was called “gu-maavatha” (shit-avenue).

   Cultural deficiencies have also contributed to one major shortcoming in the magnificent new Pallekelle, Sooriyawewa and Premadasa Stadiums: namely, bad toilet-entrance design and a serious shortage in the number of urinals and toilets required for the number of fans that each block could accommodate. Even in the higher-class toilets at corporate levels, the deficiencies in toilet practice were starkly evident: wet and dirtied seats not merely wet floors [the latter, of course, to be expected because of jets available to wash one’s bottom].

    Cultural leanings inform practices in many ways. On the other side of the fence, the Australian media’s Orientalist perspectives, combined with the emotion-driven crusading campaign against the Rajapaksa government, directed the manner in which they addressed the IDP camps. An ABC reporter had jetted in to Sri Lanka in the train of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith’s visit to the island in November 2009. On the car radio in Adelaide I chanced upon his report while in Colombo. He was waiting, he said, to get permission to visit the IDP camps in order to check on the sanitary conditions therein. Mark that! He was not interested in the issue of food supply and general welfare, but rather had honed in on the danger of disease and contagion.      

    This is deep-seated Australian culture. For over a century the Australians have attempted to keep germs and vermin from beyond the seas out of their continent by rigourous immigration procedures extending to plants, imports and incoming passengers. On one occasion Sri Lanka’s cricket team was subject to a demeaning examination of their shoes because they had recently been in Zimbabwe. This paranoid emphasis in Australian culture and political practice can, arguably, albeit tendentiously, be linked to the fear of the “Yellow Peril” in the form of thousands of Chinese immigrants that was so prevalent in the late nineteenth century and which was one factor in the institutionalization of a White Australia policy from the 1900s.

    This ABC journalist was not a maverick. Take a significant episode in the history of Menik Farm. A group of some 50-odd foreign media personnel were taken to Zone Four in late May to meet representatives from the last body of IDPs to come out of the Nandhikadal redoubt. This was a significant cluster of Tamil refugees whom one can reasonably surmise were more closely connected to the LTTE. At this session in a large tent the journalists met 21 IDPs who had one Aryanathan, a 67-year old man fluent in English, for a Q and A session. Aryanathan always translated his answers in Tamil to the other IDPs. 

    To my mind this was capital moment, one likely to reveal a great deal about the ordeal of the refugees. Murali Reddhiyar of the Hindu was alive to its importance and we are indebted to him for an account (albeit one that is far too brief in my view).[2] After the account appeared I was puzzled by the fact that I had seen no such media accounts in the Western press. I asked Murali what the Western journalists were interested in. His answer was ironic brief: “sanitation.”

    One could even say that some Western media men and media women have got “disease-and-dunny deep in their mind” whenever they confront some disaster and traumatic saga in Asia. For those not familiar with the idiom, let me note that the “dunny” is the proverbial and legendary Australian outhouse toilet.

   In May and mid-2000, of course, this emphasis among Western media-men was part of their generalized search for shit (in the metaphoric sense) to dump on Sri Lanka. That is, this leaning was one part of the discourse of outrage that saturated their coverage of the Sri Lankan scene. Their one-sided representation of the IDP camps, aided and abetted by some of my friends and NGO organizations in Colombo, is yet another large topic which I will have to address at some point in the future. For the moment it is adequate for us to ponder over the issue of differing defecation practices and their ramifications. This is truly appropriate: the squatting pan, whatever form it takes, is a moment conducive to productive reflection.

[1] Wijesinha, “Crosspurposes – The History of Manik Farm,” 8 May 2010, http://rajivawijesinha.

[2] B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Multiple displacements total loss of identity,” 2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm.

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