In Haiti, thousands of people who live in the slums don’t have toilets. They pee wherever they can, be it on the banks of the rivers or on makeshift paths. Today, excrement is the cause of many diseases and soils the island’s landscape; it has become one of the major issues the government is facing. To help with this critical situation, SOIL, a local company, builds toilets in the poorest areas, to turn excretion into quality fertilizer. We met them in Port-au-Prince.
by GRéGOIRE BELHOSTE ET WILLIAM THORP, in Port-au-Prince
Photos : LEONORA BAUMANN
A Bayakou’s hard life
As some shut their eyes to fall into the arms of Morpheus, others go to work. Some say they can hear the men make their way in the dirty streets of Port-au-Prince, others claim these men don’t even exist, because they refuse to accept such a sad and dirty truth. In Haitian Creole, which counts a myriad of delightful words and expressions, these people are known as the “bayakous”; roughly translated, the “septic tank servicing engineers”. By night, they take their wheelbarrows and cloth bags to drain their clients’ outdoor toilets – holes in which they go down and that can be very deep in the poorest areas of the capital.
Raymond, 57 years old and a chiseled face, puts his hand at chest-height. “It can be that high,” he says smiling. In Haiti, the word ‘bayakou’ is insulting, so when ‘Tiyou’ speaks about his job in public, he calls it ‘Tropicana’ or ‘Jazz’ and asks people to call him the “Major’. “If people knew what I did for a living, they would laugh at me.” He has been doing this job since 1973. “I’d rather keep it quiet.” This is why he only works at night. The problem is that it is more dangerous in the dark. He and his two colleagues sometimes get mugged by ‘kokorats’, i.e. children (orphans, for the most part) who live in the streets and wait for them at crossroads. But it can also be dangerous underground: Tiyou and his friends do not have enough money to buy proper equipment, so they go down naked in the pits and grab human excreta with their bare hands. “Sometimes we get cut because there are cutting objects in there. People throw all sorts of things in the toilets.”
We don’t really know how many people work as bayakous, but there is a reason why such jobs exist: life is still archaic in the slums, comfort doesn’t exist, and people cannot afford toilets and pipes. Only 26% of the people in Haiti are said to have toilets and half of them live in the wealthy areas of the island. They are a minority here. This is why, when nature calls, people put their excrement in plastic bags and throw it in the streets or in a ravine. The country has always been in a precarious situation and things got worse in 2010, when an earthquake killed 230,000 people and destroyed a huge part of the countries’ facilities. Haiti was damaged once more in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew struck; since then, building toilets has not been a priority for the government. There are piles of excrement here and there; it contaminates the earth, the water and the food, this is why diseases propagate so quickly. Over time, typhoid and cholera have become widespread: 10,000 people died from cholera over the past nine years while 800,000 were infected. Raymond’s job may be very dirty, but he says he never caught any severe disease and claims faith protects him. He provocatively mimes a cook tasting his sauce in a short gesture. “It is like a ritual: people from down below must taste the matter. That’s what lies behind this job.”
Paving the way to sanitary dignity
The streets of Port-au-Prince look like some never-ending traffic jam. The four-wheel drives and moto-taxis honk their horns until nightfall. But the SOIL headquarters are a long way away from this chaos: they are based just a couple of miles off Cité Soleil, a very dangerous slum, infamous for its extreme poverty, and made of sheet-metal houses. SOIL is an organization that tries to bring sanitary dignity back to the country. On this huge pitch surrounded by high fences, you’ll find offices set up in two containers, as well as a recycling centre a bit further up, where human dejections are turned into fertilizer. This NGO was founded by Sasha Kramer, an American woman, and eight other people. She first came from California to Haiti in 2004 and experienced one of the many political crises that struck the country. She arrived there just after a coup d’état, when former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled to South Africa aboard an American plane, claiming he had been kidnapped. As a Human Rights Observer, Sasha experienced the poverty in which this former priest of the slums and its predecessors had left the country. “I used to talk with the locals to understand what worried them the most. Not only did they need essentials, but they all deplored the lack of toilets as well. For people like me, having access to such facilities is so obvious that we assume it is the same everywhere. We don’t even think about it. But one day, you end up in a country like Haiti and look for toilets but can’t find any, so you find an alternative solution. In such situations, you realize how humiliating it can be.”
Sasha then sets to create an organization to solve this kind of problem. It remained just an idea for more than a year, until everything changed in 2005. Sasha was in Borgne, a coastal resort of northern Haiti, with a couple of friends. They went for a swim in the Caribbean Sea. “We were having a great time. The setting was stunning. Then I realized that there was excrement everywhere around us. The contrast between this beautiful landscape and the situation was shocking. So we really thought it was time we found a solution. We just wanted to make Haiti beautiful again.” Sasha launched the construction of composting toilets in the northern part of the island; they were public and looked like concrete white beach huts. They soon became very popular, too popular in fact: they got full and dirty too fast. SOIL did not have enough money to clean them regularly and had to drop this project. But Sasha did not give up and had another idea in mind.
An ‘infinite cycle’
All around SOIL headquarters, you’ll find green bushes that contrast with the dry ochre land. On this morning of January, 40-year-old Baudelaire Magloire, a former regional manager and current ‘organizational consultant’ for SOIL, sits in a covered courtyard to shelter from the burning sun, in front of a pile of white urinals with leaves painted on them. He explains what Sasha Kramer’s idea was: she wanted to create a service of eco-toilets for people in Haiti, especially for those who lived in the slums. It is called Eko Lakay. “We build toilets in people’s houses and give them buckets, wood chips and containers for urine,” explains Magloire, who’s also a founding member of the organization. “Once the bucket is full, we change it. We have employees who drop by every week to collect the buckets and bring them back here, where we make compost.” They call this process ‘Poop Loop’, a ‘poop cycle’ summed up in a circular plan that is detailed everywhere on the site and divided into several successive steps: ‘confinement’, ‘collection’, ‘transfer’, ‘transport’, ‘treatment’, ‘fertilization’, ‘transformation’, ‘confinement’ again, and so on. It is an endless loop. “Nothing gets lost, everything is transformed,’ Baudelaire says, paraphrasing Lavoisier. A few steps away, there is Julie, a 26-year-old French woman who started working for SOIL after she got her Master’s Degree in waste recycling. She sums up the cycle: “We always defecate what we eat. We make fertilizer to grow the food we are going to eat, and so on. The process never ends.” Sasha Kramer says Eko Lakay was born from a spiritual intention: “Have you heard about this Christian movement called Liberation theology? Well, basically, it says that every person is useful, and we have applied this to an ecological movement. There is no such thing as waste; every molecule, every organism is valuable, even excrement.”
This service costs 350 Haitian Gourdes per month, i.e. 3.68 US dollars. It is quite expensive in such a poor country, where people struggle to save a bit of money. “We can’t do it for free because it is illegal in Haiti,” Julie says, backing onto two of these white concrete urinals.
Black earth and sugar cane
Back in SOIL’s camp, two men in green overalls, black balaclavas and safety goggles on, are working in silence. They are carrying buckets labelled ‘Eko Lakay’, which they empty in big wood trays. The sun is burning the plains. Like most employees, except for Julie and a few others, they are Haitian. “Here we respect the rights of Haitians workers,” says Baudelaire Magloire before adding that “almost all staff members speak Creole,” the local language. “Wherever they come from, foreigners who come to work here learn Creole so they can talk with the staff.” They all know the place inside out and are used to driving in the streets to hand out clean buckets and collect the dirty ones. SOIL teams have a small car fleet so they can reach any part of Port-au-Prince as fast as possible.
A red and green Piaggio APE is parked on the dusty ground, surrounded by four-wheel drives and other pickup trucks. It is out of service, the engine is dead; until further notice. “We are also based in Cap-Haïtien where we have trucks that we call ‘Poopmobiles’, because they go from one place to another to collect the buckets and bring them back to the recycling centre. In Port-au-Prince, we ‘only’ have 120 clients so we just drive there with our three-wheelers,” Baudelaire Magloire says pointing at the Piaggio. “The streets in the slums are too narrow for our trucks.”
Besides urinals, SOIL employees also give diced sugar cane to their clients. They use it to cover their excrement, as we do with sawdust; they call it the ‘cat technique’. “Sugar cane is great, it is used as a filter,” Julie says. “The flies can’t feel there is something lying beneath; they don’t set in there to lay their eggs so there are no larvae. Sugar cane also prevents bad smells from developing.”
After SOIL have collected the excrement and taken it to the camp, they treat it before fertilizing it. First, they empty the buckets in big wood trays that are then covered with a layer of sugar cane, so that animals, insects and birds cannot reach the waste. “Here, you should really avoid touching anything. You must clean your hands and soak your feet in a bath of chlorine before you leave,” Julie says in front of the few boxes in which the excrement is going to stay for a month and a half. During this phase, the bacteria ‘work on’ the waste to decompose it. As it gets hotter, the bad bacteria – those which pass on cholera or E. Coli, one of the most common and resistant diseases – die. The excrement is then put into another tray, where it only stays for a month. After that, waste is piled on the ground. “We add water, we ventilate it and we toss it,” says Julie. “After six months, we have it tested in a laboratory to make sure all bacteria are dead. If it is OK, we can sell our fertilizer.” Julie walks a few steps and stops in front of a pile of black earth with an iron shovel in it. There seems to be holes in the pile. “Oh, tarantulas…,” she says laughing, shrugging it off. She stands next to very thick white bags labelled ‘Konpos Lakay – Angrè Organik’. “We put the fertilizer in these bags. They weigh 40 pounds, about 18 kilos,” she says putting her hand in this black earth. “Not only does the fertilizer help the plants grow, but it has a sustainable impact over the long term, whereas chemical fertilizers only last for a year. On the one hand, it improves the quality of the soil, which means it retains more water during the dry season and on the other hand, during the wet season, it helps the soil drain. You want soils to keep water when they need it and drain it when they do not.” The fertilizing ratio here is about 20%, so for 100 tons of waste, they produce 20 tons of fertilizer and complete the ‘poop loop’; new food can grow, people can be fed, and fertilizer can be created from their excrement again. Baudelaire Magloire looks at the urinals and says he is proud to help the people of Haiti. “We all deserve this sanitation,” he says, smiling. “Sanitation does not only concern a small group of people, it is everyone’s duty.”