Public Toilets, Open Defecation, and The Truth about Packaging

Breezing past Okene, Kogi. Image: Adaku Nwakanma

Beginnings and endings have one thing in common: they both have the potential to become comfort zones. In-between stages, sometimes also known as that awkward phase in natural hair, growth, and ultimately, life, offer no such niceties. In a country where navigating inconveniences is a way of life, home tries but often fails to be a bubble—a forte that guards against the inanities that go on outside. It becomes, in itself, a beginning and an ending. A car, a moving cocoon on wheels, makes things even better. It offers its owner brief respite. It is a shield that, unlike a bicycle, an okada or a keke, diminishes the sounds, the smells—most times unsavoury, the heat of the sun and, among other things, the loneliness of the night. Without this, transitions are a lot less cushioned with increased agitations.

The hardness of the wooden plank that passed for a bus seat, the sling of mud projected from my shoes to the back of my trousers, and the circle-ish damp beginning to form on my arm from the armpit of the man seated next to me were outcomes I had already come to expect as I journeyed to Abule-Egba in search of a lost phone that had reported its last known location the day before. It was an impassioned decision, and the euphoria of having technology do the majority of the police work so they would have less excuses to do their job was fast wearing off. Every minute or so, the landscape became even dustier and the bus jiggled and burped as if to remind its occupants that they shouldn’t lose themselves: they had not arrived. When we finally did, my boyfriend at the time took the very manly role of taking charge of the situation. I had the very inconvenient role of finding a public restroom as my stomach had also gotten the in-transit reminder.

Away from perfectly curated spaces and controlled outcomes, transitions remind you of where you as a product of a society really stand. For any period of time you spend in-between, you most likely have to depend on the structures that you may not ordinarily consider. I remember how grateful I was for the fresh water streaming into a blue bucket in the middle of the arena in which Muslim men were gathered with their little plastic kettles in all the colour variants. When they pointed to a concrete block with a wooden door darkened and jagged from use, the smell of ammonia and the imagination of all that could have transpired within the small room were only fleeting thoughts compared to the liquid rumbling of my stomach. The water system is gone and in its place, a pit latrine with gracious slabs for the user to climb and squat over. A fly buzzes past as feculent matter spatters down and around the hole — I am just grateful that there’s one left.

Back to the hustle and bustle of urban Lagos living, I look over what was once the longest bridge in Africa as I normally do during the traffic-induced, two-hour trip to the island. The first time I joined the well-written and sung-about race, I was horrified by the sight before me: water and logs of wood waiting for the mill speckled by the squatted butt cheeks of people trying to let go of digested waste from the night before. It wasn’t quite like that of men who took a break from driving or from walking down the street to face a defaced wall or bush to relieve themselves — I would make sure to avoid these ones and that I didn’t stare so that they could have their minute of privacy even in the glare of public view, even when I knew I couldn’t get the same. It wasn’t until a penis appeared below the window of a stationary bus waiting for passengers at the bus stop to relieve itself that I considered that maybe, maybe penises didn’t mind and actually craved the public eye.

But even with the common sight of urine projectiles, I liked to think methods like shot putting, which we practiced and perfected in secondary school with black nylons — still oily from the akara it held a few hours ago and flung as far away as possible in stunning spin motions with something still warm but not akara— were things that you left, and that left you, as one became an adult. Not a teenage adult though, in the university the pathways were full of telltales of people who couldn’t even afford others the decency of oil stained black nylons, and sometimes the wind would waft smells from our shoes that we would cringe our noses at until we learnt to be more adept, but a proper adult: an adult living, working and paying bills; An adult capable of reprimanding erring children; an adult accountable to no one but herself.

Having covered four hours of asphalt on the way to Abuja, we had made the designated stop to refill and refuel, and also relieve our bladders. The group of passengers, seeming like they were already used to the routine, make to a secluded area, which I assumed had toilets somewhere around, a few metres away — I would later learn to follow the trail, made up of mostly women, at each of the next stops. After debating with myself about whether my bladder could hold under unforeseen circumstances or not, I stand up only to be accosted by squatted butts off in the distance. Now the debate changes to whether refusing to join will be a mistake for the next three or more hours.

I decide to risk it, remembering vividly how missed opportunities, no matter how slim or not up to par, comes back to haunt the memory when it meets inconvenience. The ground is black, without any of the splodges of brown that indicate hope of revival. Instead, it reminds me of the oil spill that had coloured the tar from the trailer on its side we had passed earlier. There’s a wall of brick and mortar behind and a tree that offered whatever was left of privacy from other passengers taking a stretch outside their vehicles. An altar had been made of the tree in front: where love lock bridges where indicative of romance in France, crumpled white tissue papers found their way back to their source in a completed cycle. Warm liquid splatters on the wedge of my shoe which, while inconvenient for such a long trip, was proving to be a good decision.

Many have written about how a mind, once expanded, never goes back to its previous dimensions. Walls expand and contract during childbirth; gravity ensures everything that goes up comes down, back on the road, I wonder if expansions are the only ways a mind can transform. Is it expansion that I did not feel like soldier ants were crawling up my legs and that I did not overthink the fact that a certain multipurpose comfort tube with its perforated green head was nowhere to be found? I was somewhat on the verge of regret when I followed the next trail and found the standard row of toilets manned by a collector after each use: repurposed plastic bottles served to flush urine down sink drains and grains of detergent were handed out like secondary school children begging for peanut burgers from their friends.

The thing about transitions is that though you may have an idea that it won’t be easy, you’re never prepared for the form of unease the path would divulge, and what it will require of you. So when @haroldwrites tweeted a scene in which he noticed a lady rush out from her parked her car on his way home, and pull down her jumpsuit to “squat to urinate in full glare,” I immediately understood that commonly used reference that “we’re all mad in this Lagos.” The difference was that I did not assume that we we’re all sane in the first place, only that we had created and continue to make bubbles that make our transitions between easier and more bearable. And where he thought the lady removing her clothes, leaving just her underwear was crazy — and also put some kind of weird honour in her private parts — I empathised with the feeling the lady must have experienced by coming in contact with one of the hurdles which, in a saner clime, should not exist.

By the third stop, I was already done with it all, and luckily it seemed, so was the trip. The place was bigger than the rest and had all the perks of merged businesses. The pee trail went past a restaurant, a cash-out station, Hausa men enticing passengers with their suya in Igbo language they spoke too well, and women calling out to buy dry fish in mild sopranos. “Which one una wan do?” a burly woman asks the trail whether we wanted to do the number 1 or number 2, after which we were directed to a large tiled hall with a gutter to the wall; the locked stalls were for more serious issues. A large black drum, which sat opposite the gutter that ran the length of the hall, had water running into it from the tap above. For a moment, I stood not knowing what to do, and then followed the examples of women who drew water and chased urine down the gutter with little white pails after relieving themselves in that infamously squatting position. I reached for the tissue in my bag to wipe the droplets on the side of the shoes I was now even more than grateful for. At least there was a sink and that comfort tube on the way out.

Maybe transitions get easier towards the end, maybe we only become accustomed to new realities during the in-between stage and learn to train our minds to handle what comes our way, maybe we all just strive to change the possible hurdles on our path, and maybe that curating power is what differentiates our class hierarchy (in which case I’ve flouted the packaging rule and revealed whatever mine is). But like the popular cliche, transitions offer a glimpse outside our comfort bubbles, and an understanding for those in transit who do everything to reach the end.

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Adaku Nwakanma

Adaku Nwakanma

I write about digital product design.