BAMENDA, Cameroon (GPI)-- At a large compound in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region, a series of apartments houses more than 15 residents. Those residents share just one pit toilet.
Yvette points to the apartment that was hers in the compound until some months ago, when she moved out.
“All of us in the compound shared two bathrooms and one pit toilet that was almost full,” she says. “I got sick of the situation and had to move to a new compound where, though I still share the toilets with my neighbors, am a little satisfied that at least we have more than one toilet and it is modern.”
Besides the pressure of waiting in a queue to use the toilet in her old neighborhood, Yvette says that on rainy nights, it was very difficult to go to the toilet at all because it lacked a proper roof. So, many tenants would poop in plastic bags or pails and dispose of it in the morning, she says.
Yvette and her former neighbors are not alone in this sanitation dilemma. Open defecation is a common practice in Cameroon. Still, it is considered a shameful topic for young women to discuss, so Yvette requested her last name be withheld. Moreover, public defecation creates numerous health risks.
Thousands of residents of Bamenda and other cities in Cameroon don’t have access to toilets because of a lack of public and private facilities. The government has built some facilities, but it admits it’s not enough. A sanitation team strives to discourage residents from open defecation, the elimination of which is crucial in preventing outbreaks of cholera and other sanitation-related diseases. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations have initiated campaigns to improve sanitation facilities and practices.
Sanitation is a human right and key in disease prevention, according to the World Health Organization. WHO predicts that 2.7 billion people – about 40 percent of the world’s population – will be without access to basic sanitation by 2015 if current trends continue. Cholera outbreaks are a result of inadequate water supplies, sanitation, food safety and hygiene practices.
Less than half of Cameroon’s population has access to improved sanitation facilities, according to UNICEF’s latest statistics from 2008.
Musa Usman Ndamba is the president of Bamenda Traders and Economic Operators Union, an association of more than 1,000 small businesses in the city that advocate for labor rights and better working conditions. He says that public bathrooms are lacking here, estimating that there are 5,000 traders occupying 1,000 shops in the city’s main market – yet just a few toilets for them and their customers to use.
“These traders, plus the thousands of people who visit the market, are disposed to two urina[ls] and four toilets provided by the local council,” he says.
Traders and customers must pay 50 francs (10 cents) to use the toilet, he says. The number of toilets are few, and the maintenance is poor. During the rainy seasons, the toilets often flood. Because they are located near the stalls that sell food, this puts the traders and the public at high risk for disease. The risk is even greater for women, who must squat to use the toilets, because of their proximity to the waste.
Ndamba says his union has written to the council appealing for positive action to protect the health of the traders and the public.