24 February 2015
Ba Miniva just wandered over from the Mfuba Co-op meeting next door. I greeted her and asked if she wanted to sit on the porch.
But I knew – I could sense – the real reason she was here.
She wanted to use my icimbusu.
She fidgeted a bit and said, “Ah, can I borrow a dish? We’re winnowing maize.”
I ducked into the house to grab one, and sure enough, by the time I popped my head back out, she was gone. I caught a glimpse of her entering the icimbusu, then heard her lift the plastic dish that covers the hole.
I laughed to myself.
This is one of those Bemba cultural things that I still can’t get over. No one – and I mean NO ONE – will ask to use the toilet, or say they’re going to the toilet, or even let you see them heading in that direction if they can possibly help it.
This conservatism leads to all kinds of situations that I find hilarious. Like when I’m in a vehicle and someone asks the driver to stop along an empty roadside because they want to “gather mushrooms” or “get some fresh air.” And next thing you know, everyone in the vehicle is out “gathering mushrooms.”
The cultural taboo of being seen going to heed the call of nature is the main reason it’s taken so long for rural Zambians to build or use pit toilets.
Only a generation ago, my neighbors all pooped in the woods. Then it was easy to say you were just going to “collect firewood.”
This system worked fine – as it did worldwide anywhere where population density remained very low.
But now, despite a growing population, pit toilets remain a tough sell in some areas. This has lead to an actual campaign to convince people to build and use pit toilets, which remain nonexistent in many villages.
Because, you see, if you have to use an icimbusu, then everyone KNOWs what you’re doing when you head inside. You can’t exactly pretend you’re going in there to “powder your nose,” as some stuffy Americans might say.
This dilemma has led to a practice that crosses my own personal gross-ness barrier: peeing in the ulusasu (bathing shelter) instead of in the icimbusu.
I’m not sure if those who duck surreptitiously into the bathing shelter think they’re fooling us into believing they’re just taking a quick, waterless bath (since they clearly didn’t bring any water in there), or if they just feel it’s preferable for everyone to know they’re peeing than for everyone to assume they’re pooping.
But there are two problems with this system, as I see it. First, if everyone pees in the ulusasu, then when you head specifically for the icimbusu, everyone KNOWS you’re pooping, making icimbusu use even more difficult to support.
Second, if everyone pees in the ulusasu, it reeks! And who wants to bathe in the pee spot?
Hence one of my personal crusades has been getting kids not to pee in my bathing shelter. I tell them they can pee in the cimbu or just in the woods right behind my house if they prefer. (Though they cannot, I always remind them, poop in the woods.) They always take the second option.
My second personal crusade is getting people to actually say they’re going to the bathroom. It’s one of those areas in which I’ve chosen to blatantly hold on to my dirty-hippie-American ways in the face of Bemba cultural assimilation.
This is partly to show vocal support for better hygiene practices. How can you improve sanitation and disease prevention if no one will talk about these things?
But, let’s face it: it’s partly for my own amusement as well. Whenever anyone shows up at my house with an “Odi?” (“May I come in?”) and I’m in the cimbu, I yell out, “I’m in the icimbusu!” I then purposely and visibly wash my hands before greeting the person, whether I was pooping or only peeing, because this particular hygiene practice hasn’t yet caught on with everyone in Mfuba.
When only the kids are over and I have to use the cimbu, I announce, “I’m going to pee!” or occasionally, “I’m going to poop!” Even if I really am only going to pee.
The kids love this almost as much as when I admit I’ve just farted. Though they usually refuse to believe me and proceed to lay the blame on one of their unsuspecting playmates. When I insist, “Everyone farts! Even your parents fart!” they look at me with horror and deny completely the possibility that mom and dad might occasionally pass gas.
I have made a tiny bit of progress in this area. Just a month or so ago, I was quite pleased when seven-year-old Obed announced, on his way to the cimbu, “I’m going to poop!”
I’ve never used the word “poop” around an adult, not ACTUALLY wanting to offend them, though I have told people when I’ve had ukupolomya (diarrhea). We all have to be able to talk about that to know how to prevent it.
Besides, every once in a while, I just can’t help myself. It’s fun to push the boundaries a little.
When Ba Miniva returned from the cimbu, I smiled and said, “You couldn’t just SAY you wanted to use the icimbusu?”
She feigned incomprehension and took the dish I gave her, without comment.
At least I didn’t ask her if everything came out all right. I’ll leave that to the next PCV.