When Temporary Toilets Become a Fixture in Poor Communities

We've all seen those portable plastic toilets at festivals and street fairs, but what happens when a community has to use them for more than a decade? Robert Smith from Planet Money takes us to a slum outside of Cape Town, South Africa, where a temporary solution has lasted too long.

Southern Africa 2016

By Robert Smith

June 03, 2016

Also aired on NPR

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST: After disasters like Hurricane Sandy, one of the things that government does is bring in temporary toilets, those big blue or green plastic ones you see at festivals or on construction sites. But there are parts of the world where that temporary toilet has become a permanent solution for poor and refugee communities. NPR's Robert Smith traveled with the International Reporting Project to find out what happens when a place has to use the blue boxes for more than a decade.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: When faced with something gross, it's best to give it a cute name, like Porta-Potty or Honey Bucket. In the poor sections of Cape Town, South Africa, they call them Mshengu - as in, why is that reporter poking his head inside the Mshengu?

Hello, we've come to see the toilet.

Khayelitsha is a super dense neighborhood of tin-roof sheds. People have propped them up wherever they want, so there was never a plan for streets or water, let alone toilets. The city of Cape Town started to tuck in these big blue Mshengu toilets wherever there was a free scrap of land. I spot on one a 45-degree slope, and it's hard to see exactly what's holding it up.

LUTHANDO TOKATA: You can see by yourself there's nothing there underneath.

SMITH: Do these toilets ever slide down the hill?

TOKATA: Sometimes, yes.

SMITH: This is Luthando Tokata, one of the residents showing me around, along with Nosiphelele Msesiwe. She points out a temporary toilet that towers above us on what is essentially a three-foot pedestal of dirt.

NOSIPHELELE MSESIWE: How can you go in there? There should be steps there. They just put it without concern.

SMITH: Luthando and Nosiphelele are part of a group called the Social Justice Coalition. They're pushing the city of Cape Town for more flush toilets for the neighborhood. But they also act as de facto bathroom monitors, helping people report broken and filthy potties, sometimes acting as toilet detectives. People drag toilets away into their own yards and sheds. After more than a decade of dealing with temporary toilets, nobody's even sure where they all are, not even the guy who has the aerial map.

ERNEST SONNENBERG: This is where you were actually standing.

SMITH: In a city office, Ernest Sonnenberg points to a satellite map, shows me the section I had just toured. He's the Cape Town city councilor in charge of sanitation. And he asks, how do you even get a truck into that neighborhood?

Because there's houses behind houses behind houses...

SONNENBERG: ...Behind houses.

SMITH: It would be easy to blame the toilet situation on money - a cheap, temporary solution for poor, temporary residents. But it's way more complicated than that. Sonnenberg says it would actually be cheaper to maintain flush toilets in the area than to keep hauling in the big blue Mshengus. But Sonnenberg says that the city has some limitations. They do build some flush toilets, but a lot of what they call informal settlements are basically squatters on private land. The city can't legally dig up the place, put in sewers. Also, the area with the tilting toilets I saw was sitting on top of a wetland.

SONNENBERG: Logic would determine that's not the best place to actually invade. But people are there, so we obviously have to do the best that we can.

SMITH: But this impasse means that in Khayelitsha, you can meet young people who have been using temporary toilets their whole life.

SAWABILE NGESI: Since I was born.

SMITH: Sawabile Ngesi is 21 years old. He's impeccably dressed in a button-down shirt and newsboy cap. He says after using a toilet long enough, it starts to feel like yours. And so his family did what a lot of residents here do - essentially privatized their public toilet. They put a lock on it.

NGESI: In order for keeping the people from making it dirty, you must lock it and give your neighbors some of the keys.

SMITH: Sawabile says until they get flush toilets, this is going to have to do, essentially creating toilet collectives guarding and maintaining their own blue boxes. It is technically illegal, but even the guy from the city says what are you going to do? It helps keep people invested in a temporary solution that might not be so temporary. Robert Smith, NPR News.