Saturday, January 05, 2008

Living in shit

The last two years I have spent a few weeks in Europe. Each time, I decided to plan my train and bus rides overnight, so I didn't have to fork out the cash for an extra night in a hotel. This resulted in me sleeping on benches in train and bus stations as well as during the actual bus or train rides. I usually had to check out of where I was staying in the late morning, so I had to find somewhere to go until the afternoon of the next day. For a posh Westerner such as myself, it was a different experience. The main issue, I found, was finding somewhere to go to the bathroom. It was an event. I had to find a somewhat clean, somewhat private, place to handle my business. Back home, I certainly took such places for granted.

Mike Davis' Planet of Slums has a subsection in the chapter Slum Ecology entitled Living in Shit. [pg. 137-142] He discusses the "excremental surplus" that plagues urban areas with great detail. This is not a new problem, of course, as slums in London and other industrialized European cities had to deal with this issue years ago. But as Davis says, "Today's poor megacites- Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on- are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians."

Along with the problem of where to put the buildup of shit, there is the related problem of where to actually physically release the waste. While I in no way want to compare my minor inconvenience in Europe to slum dwellers' deadly serious situation, I do believe it gave me the mental framework to at least partially understand the feeling of helplessness not having a private area to take care of hygienic needs can instill in a person. This affects men and women differently, often affecting women to a greater degree. According to Davis, "Being forced to exercise body functions in public is certainly a humiliation for anyone, but, above all, it is a feminist issue. Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene." He goes on to quote journalist Asha Krishnakumar as saying, "The absence of toilets is devastating for women. It severely affects their dignity, health, safety and sense of privacy, and indirectly their literacy and productivity. To defecate, women and girls have to wait until dark which exposes them to harassment and even sexual assault." Many women simply decide not to eat during the day in hopes they won't have to go to the bathroom.

The reason I posted on this unsettling topic is that I find the "solution" to this problem so unbelievably brutal, it leaves me sick to my stomach. Rather than working on revamping the public sanitation system, governments, at the request of elite Western economists, have privatized going to the bathroom! So, in effect, many people can't even take a shit without private industry reaching their greedy hands into the people's nearly empty pockets. This is an invasion of privacy if there ever was one. Toward the end of the subsection, Davis remarks "Indeed, one of the great achievements of Washington-sponsored neoliberalism has been to turn public toilets into cash points for paying off foreign debt- pay toilets are a growth industry throughout Third World slums." Now that is disgusting.