Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Primer on Toilets

Ever listened to Pacific Love (Unofficial Peace Corps Anthem) - Poop in a Hole? If not, I encourage you to check it out on YouTube.

Life as a missionary volunteer is not always glamorous but it can be personally rewarding. You’ll find your patience tested to its limits and feel like you can’t endure another day. You’ll be uprooted from your comfort zone and sent on a wild rollercoaster of experiences and emotions that will generate a Spiritual growth spurt if you allow Him.  In the end, you’ll discover that you can never view the world in the same light once you’ve been overseas.

To switch gears from the grand, but vague, discourse above, let’s spotlight some specifics of living in Cameroon.

I live in the Southwest region of Cameroon in a medium –sized town called Buea with a surrounding population of approximately 200,000. It’s nestled on the side of Mt. Cameroon, one of the tallest peaks in West Africa at 4,040 meters (13,255 feet).  There’s an urban flavor that permeates society and many residents have ties to Europe or America. Taxis and private vehicles whiz down the road, keeping pedestrians wary and alert. Flocks of university students, looking sharp in their stylish European outfits, mix with the locals in their Cabas as they attend the only English speaking University in Cameroon. Everyone carries at least one cellular phone, houses have electricity, and Internet is readily available.  Not too bad?

But wait! Despite the modern conveniences, this fact remains – the plumbing in Cameroon is appalling and broken pipes with frequent water outages are the norm. As a consequence there are unique bathroom experiences of which you should be conversant. 

1.     Au Natural. This is where one pulls up to the side of the road, or maybe round the corner of a convenient building, and takes a whiz. Both men and women find this acceptable. Once I saw four men peeing simultaneously. They stood calmly at equal intervals, each facing the tall grass at the roadside peacefully ignoring their neighbor on either side. It is up to the passer-by to ignore the one easing himself, by the way!

2.     Seat Free Toilet. Strangely, most toilets in Cameroon have lost their toilet seat and lid. I don’t know why. Maybe the manufactured seats here are not built to withstand steady use. On the positive side, this ensures that your bottom doesn’t make contact with a grimy, soiled seat cover!

3.     Bidet. Wikipedia defines it as a low-mounted plumbing fixture or type of sink intended for washing the genitalia, inner buttocks, and anus. Ha! Ha! Our plumber once referred to it as “the ladies’ toilet”. Anyway, I don’t hear of people actually using these fixtures but they are found in most hotels and many private residences. Be my guest!

4.     Hole in the Ground. They are not as common as in other parts of Africa. However, you will still find yourself aiming for that small hole between your legs at some point. The disadvantage of the porcelain version is that one must pee carefully to avoid splashes! The earthy kind found in outhouses are actually more sanitary in my opinion. And yes, you should flush. Either with the handle above the toilet or with the bucket of water standing nearby.

5.     Home Commode. After returning from a long bus trip where you purposely dehydrated yourself in order to avoid asking the driver to pull over for you to empty your bladder in front of a crowd of curious Africans or coming back from Douala where you traipsed gingerly behind shady looking structures to find a dirty, stinky spot to relieve yourself, you will appreciate your own personal toilet. One develops a certain fondness for her own commode! Even though you have to jiggle the handle in just the right way to keep the reservoir from overflowing, you still appreciate that familiar flush.

A few remarks as you hastily reconsider that application for mission service (just kidding!). It is correct to say “I want to pee” but it is more polite to ask, “Where can I ease myself?” If you inquire, “Where is the restroom or bathroom?” you may get a blank, uncomprehending stare. To ease oneself is the proper term you will hear. Many bathrooms, also labeled W.C. for water closet, lack running water. Identify how you’re going to flush before easing yourself. Finally, in order to reduce water waste and preserve the sewers, many private residences will ask you to observe this little rhyme. “When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down”.

In closing, I can assure you that for those who maintain their sense of humor and keep their eyes open for the quirks and nuances of their new culture will always find laughter and smiles to brighten their days.