Decolonising urban sanitation through celebration
By Nelly M Leblond, on 14 September 2021
The project “OVERDUE: Tackling the sanitation taboo across urban Africa” was launched in July 2021, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time no vaccine was yet in sight for the places and people central to the project: the women, men, girls and boys who build and run vital infrastructures of care across African cities. On the frontline, with scarce protective equipment, they were – and still are – subject to lockdowns and travel bans while dealing with viral residues, reduced livelihoods, limited access to water and sanitation, and increased caring responsibilities.
Inspired by the Disability Festivals organized by the AT2030 programme, the OVERDUE team saw the potential of using festivals to destigmatize the work of sanitation providers and to spark new conversations. The principal investigator, Adriana Allen, saw festivals as “context sensitive”, acknowledging sanitation as a lifeline for urban and domestic spaces in the pandemic.
At the end of 2020, the OVERDUE team embarked on a set of celebratory activities in the cities of Beira (Mozambique), Freetown (Sierra Leone), and Mwanza (Tanzania), where OVERDUE’s research is rooted. These were complemented by an online campaign: Voicing Just Sanitation. Beyond sensitivity and fun, the sanitation celebrations embedded a theoretical and methodological claim that aligns with the call to decolonise the Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) sector.
The city sanitation festivals immediately attracted enthusiasts. Claudy Vouhé from l’Etre Egale, for example, envisioned the potential to re-position women as key providers, challenging the narratives of women as mere sanitation beneficiaries.
However, there were also some doubts raised. Sending colleagues to organise festivals during a pandemic, and forcing celebrations on to a sector that people might locally want to treat otherwise, seemed problematic. So I asked Allen: “can’t we just have soap handouts instead of festivals?” Colleagues from the Sierra Leonean Urban Research Centre (SLURC) had been praised for offering soaps and buckets. Fortunately, Allen held on, convinced that festivals could go a long way. And they did.
In Freetown, SLURC organized a sanitation walk across the city on World Toilet Day, 19 November 2020. “It had much more success than I thought” acknowledged Sulaiman Kamara, researcher at SLURC, “communities did not want to let us go. They showed us their toilets, they had so much to say.” COVID-19 was a challenge. Attendances had to be reduced, and the planned football match could not go ahead. The participants ended up wearing the shirts designed for the players, advertising Freetown’s City Council sanitation hotline.
In Beira, the team led by COWI-Mozambique organized radio debates in partnership with Mega-FM Radio to reach communities and households under lockdown. This allowed the voices and preoccupations of individual residents to “bubble up”, and discussion of these in the light of colonial legacies, corruption, hopes and constrained capacities. Officials from the municipality and sanitation services, practitioners and local authorities were publicly broadcasted, moving sanitation out of the grey zone of unspoken frustrations to the spotlight of public accountability.
In Mwanza, the Centre for Community Initiatives CCI Tanzania and Ardhi University organized presentations, dances and a drawing competition on the subject of safe sanitation in the Mabatini neighbourhood. This created a space to publicly challenge taboos and to discuss options such as simplified sewerage systems. The women who, mostly, maintain the sanitation facilities voiced their concerns and struggles to uphold privacy and safety.
The festivals turned out to be powerful tools for engaging with local sanitation authorities, providers and users; and for connecting these groups with each other.
By celebrating existing initiatives and practices, and by taking stock of what local people and organisations knew rather than pathologizing them, the sanitation festivals departed from dominant approaches.
They challenged the white saviour complex, whereby foreigners construct issues to match their capacities so as to later claim ego-centric successes. This complex has plagued the WASH sector since the colonial era, as hygiene and sanitation were, and sometimes still are, conceived as western “gifts” to “unclean” and “uncivilized” populations.
In contrast, the festivals materialised what Māori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls “celebrating survivance”. They focused on the resistance, resilience, and journeys that have enabled indigenous people to survive and retain cultural and spiritual values, despite harmful processes and structures such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, and neoliberalism.
Valuing everyday sanitation practices as local acts of heroism produces enabling positions and identities. This contrasts with damage-based research, which looks for victims, stigmatizing and disempowering those it seeks to help.
Furthermore, the celebratory perspective helped de-normalize poor sanitary conditions and voiced aspirations in non-antagonistic ways. This is crucial for interventions to successfully move beyond the pilot stage, another pitfall for projects imbued with coloniality. It creates motion that can be endogenously sustained beyond the festival events and research projects themselves.
Reordering time and expertise
The sanitation festivals made space and time for anchoring the research on pre-existing and context-specific engagements and practices. They inverted the traditional timeline of research, which rolls out pre-defined questions and methods and then shares “results” later, recognising that societies are both substrate and empty-cups-to-be-filled. Celebrating catalysed productive knowledge relations, that act both as objectives and railings, drive us forward while keeping us on track.
Subtly, this redistributes expertise. It removes planners, practitioners and researchers from fenced offices and puts them on an equal footing with the women, men, girls and boys who work in sanitation every day. It multiplies standpoints and perspectives, a key feminist movement to strengthen objectivity.
Further, it makes the reinterrogation of colonial and post-colonial bifurcations between off-grid and on-grid sanitation possible. As both users and providers of sewerage facilities and on-site sanitation are engaged, co-dependencies between on-grid and off-grid systems can be observed and discussed. This is a necessary step to advance sanitation justice.
So, should we all celebrate?
Preconditions must be recalled and enthusiasm moderated. These sanitation festivals were made possible by SLURC, CCI, Ardhi University and COWI’s networks in Beira, Mwanza, and Freetown. The activities built on previously weathered collaborations and understandings.
Celebration cannot be parachuted. But as Somsook Boonyabancha urges us to think, it can be stirred if we invest in people rather than projects. Building communities, institutions and trust first so that drains and sanitation can be realised second.
Flexi funds, a budget facility to transfer money to partners with no strings attached, were crucial to designing context-specific and relevant activities. They helped participants to yield power and support creativity. Despite major budget cuts imposed by the UK government, this approach will continue to drive our work We hope that this will stimulate further moves to push back coloniality in the WASH sector, and that we can pursue a second edition, hopefully in a post-pandemic and socially re-energized context.
The author wishes to acknowledge valuable input from Pascale Hofmann (UCL) and Adriana Allen (UCL). Celebration as a method will be further discussed in a dedicated session of the RISE Africa 2021 Action Festival.