Retired Halifax plumber is building flushable privies for Africa
John DeMont is a columnist for The Chronicle Herald.
Epiphanies that change lives can come like a thunderbolt of sudden insight.
Or they can be a notion that just lingers below the surface, until it is time for that long-agoevent to have modern-day consequences. It has been for Ben John, the Halifax man who would change the world, one toilet at a time.
It was hard growing up as John did, in a family of 12 in rural apartheid South Africa.
Among the wearying challenges then was just going to the toilet — when that meant walking 120 metres in the dark of night through terrain where wild animals and human predators commonly roamed, to relieve yourself in a deep hole in the ground, with no water for washing up afterwards.
“It wasn’t a pleasant memory seeing the lack of safety and dignity for my family,” says John, a plumber by training. “It was particularly hard for my mother and (seven) sisters, as it is hard for women who have to use the bathroom in rural areas around the world.”
Now let us fast forward to today: John, who moved from Botswana to Nova Scotia in 2005, has closed his plumbing business.
Instead the 54-year-old is focusing on the aid
group he founded, Help 2 Overcome (H2O), to deliver plumbing and sanitation to communities in the developing world.
The need is almost beyond comprehension. The World Health Organization figures thatmore than 2.4 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation, meaning toilets that flush.
No surprise, then, that Sunday is World Toilet Day, which this year focuses on how sanitation, or the lack of it, impacts people and their lives.
Lack of proper sanitation leads to epidemic-like incidences of cholera, hookworm, typhus, polio and other diseases. Today alone, more than 10,000 people will die because they drank water contaminated with human waste.
By the end of 2017, more than 315,000 children will have died due to complications after contracting diarrhea.
The shortage of flushable toilets takes a toll on young women in a different way, explains John. Using the bathroom outdoors is embarrassing to young females, doubly so when they reach puberty and begin to menstruate.
To avoid the humiliation and harassment that comes from relieving themselves in latrines, or right out in the open, many just stop going to school.
“It is so important that girls stay in school because if they do not and are just sitting around at home, they will be married off at a young age,” says John.
The father of four boys is trying, in his own way, to reduce the number of child brides.
“There is a saying in Africa: You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time.”
In 2014 that meant building four flushable toilets — evenly split by gender — and four sinks for children whose parents were in jail in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Flush toilets, John thinks,
keep those boys and girls in school. Education, he adds, borrowing the philosophy of his hero Nelson Mandela, is the key to the future — whether for individuals, families or an entire country.
Which explains why he plans to return to Sierra Leone, where 70 per cent of the seven million people live below the poverty line, next April.
This time John will focus his efforts on the 325 girls who study at another Freetown school where, when he visited last year, there wasn’t a single washroom.
His plan is to build 10 composting toilets with a unique Swedish design: waste and feces emerges in the form of a hand-pumped liquid fertilizer.
It, in turn, can then be used to grow vegetables in people’s gardens, thereby making the community both more sustainable andincreasingly self-sufficient.
“When I see my children,” John says of his boys, aged 25 through six, “I want them to have the best education they can have so that they can effect change and become good community leaders.”
He wants to see the same scope of possibility for the students of Freetown.
And right now the only thing preventing that from being so may be something as simple as a few working toilets.
-JOHN DEMONT/The Chronicle Herald