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Major Setbacks and Successes for NG Ecologist in West Africa

Three National Geographic Emerging Explorers have teamed up for a one-of-a-kind project in Africa.  Sasha Kramer of SOIL will integrate her group’s work transforming human waste into a valuable agricultural resource and Dino Martins’ natural pest control efforts into the farming communities in northern Benin where Jennifer Burney of SELF has installed solar powered irrigation...

Three National Geographic Emerging Explorers have teamed up for a one-of-a-kind project in Africa.  Sasha Kramer of SOIL will integrate her group’s work transforming human waste into a valuable agricultural resource and Dino Martins’ natural pest control efforts into the farming communities in northern Benin where Jennifer Burney of SELF has installed solar powered irrigation systems. This collaboration is made possible by the Blackstone Ranch Institute, which offers an annual challenge grant for the most innovative new projects proposed by two or more National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

What a whirlwind of a month it’s been for the SOIL team. Last month the team arrived in Cotonou, the capital of Benin, to introduce and demonstrate the process of converting human waste into rich compost. (Read more at NG Explorer Digs Into a 4-Year-Old Latrine). Since we last caught up with Sasha, the team has had many great successes, but also some major setbacks.

Here is an excerpt written by SOIL visionary and team member Anthony Kilbride for the official SOIL blog:

Bobo enthusiastically describes the benefits of compost. Photo courtesy of SOIL

Bobo, SOIL’s “Master Animator”, explains to the local people in the town of Bessassi how human excrement  (an unpopular and often taboo subject) can be collected and used in place of expensive chemical or cow fertilizer.

With the help of the local elected official translating, Bobo started off with a series of questions, slowly breaking the ice and developing the (eco)logic of the EcoSan approach: “What do you eat?” “What happens when you are full?” “Where do you poop?” “What do you use to fertilize your crops?” “How can you use the resources that are all around you?”

It was clear that the women had a keen sense of the need for something to boost the productivity of their soil, mostly they used cow manure or chemical fertilizer. However, they seemed nonplussed about the sanitation aspects of EcoSan, and ‘going’ in the bush was not a problem for them, though they did claim that the main barrier to not having local toilets was finance.

Bobo however, had another trick up his sleeve, or rather, in his bag, as we had brought with us a bag of rich dark humanure compost from the Kalale latrine…

“Does anyone know what this is?” he said.  Women eagerly reached out their hands and began to pass around handfuls of compost.

Checking for smells.

Fumiere… Matiere Vaches… Kaka Bouef!”. Unanimously, the women replied that the black substance they were caressing in their fingers was cow manure.

“Would you use this in your garden?  Heads nodded approvingly all around.

Checking for smell. Photo courtesy of SOIL.

The bombshell.

Then there was the moment of truth when Bobo explained where it had in fact come from.  “We got this manure from a school in Kalale” he said, heads continued to nod less vigorously.

“From an old toilet” he said. Laughter ensued and women began to pass around a bowl of water for hand washing.

“OK” he said “if you use cow manure to make your crops grow taller and greener, then why not use humanure too?”

–          Silence.

The silence was eventually broken by tutting, laughing, head-shaking, and general disapproval.

“Why not?” Bobo continued, “Cows poop. Humans poop. If cow poop is good for your crops, then why not human poop too?

–          More silence, then more laughter.

Sasha and Bobo try to convey their love for compost.

A women fills one sandal with EcoSan compost to compare it to the sandal she's filled with soil. Photo courtesy of SOIL

A success?…

Had Bobo ‘mis-judged the room’?

“What you were touching is earth, is soil” continued Bobo, opting now for some religious imagery: “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. You come from the soil and you return to the soil. Everything is soil. The poop from Kalale was turned into soil by God, and now it is here to return to the soil in Bessassi”.

The exact steps that followed were hard to document in scientific fashion. But one-by-one, the hubbub subsided and the women who we thought we had shocked and lost, began to comprehend Bobo’s logic, and turned again to the small piles of humanure compost that they had collected at their feet:

“So, we can use this to grow food?” inquired one.

“This comes from us?” asked another.

“Yes, Yes! You have it!” cried Bobo “You can make this – right here in Bessassi – and you can have a toilet that will make this for you, and keep you from having to go in the bush”.

The penny drops.

By the end of the meeting Bobo was shining like a poop-deity and answering  quick-fire questions from the entire group:

“Can I use the toilet?” “Can my family use the toilet?” Can I take some compost home today?” “Can I use it to grow carrots?” “Can I build a toilet like this at my home?”

“Yes, yes, yes, and yes!”

Within minutes we are all utterly transformed and smiling from ear to ear. We had started to achieve the most important part of our trip: to instill the passion in others that has driven Bobo and Sasha since SOIL’s beginnings in Haiti in 2006, to foster a belief in a technology that is transforming communities in Haiti and throughout the world, and to make a toilet a desirable sought-after necessity that can improve health for humans and for our environment.


Piles of Gold

Shortly after the team’s success in Bessassi, they returned to a 4-year-old abandoned school latrine in Kalale, Benin they had scoped out a few days prior. An experience Sasha calls “the highlight of her professional career”, she and Bobo discovered the contents of the latrine had turned into rich, composted soil.

They invited several members of three women’s groups from the communities of Bessassi and Dunkassa to come to Kalale and watch Bobo and Sasha descend back into the hole and bring up buckets and buckets of beautiful soil. The women, in total awe, even helped bag the soil and prepare it for transport. This was yet another major step forward towards changing the stigma surrounding handling human waste. (May 4, 2012– Back Into the Toilet)

Bobo recovering in a Benin hospital. Photo courtesy of SOIL

A Turn for the Worse

Several weeks later, Bobo set out on his return journey back to his home in Haiti. He was stopped, however, by airport authority and not allowed to board his flight. Bobo determined that he was blocked because the agent at the airport had not looked at all of his documents and assumed that he did not have the appropriate visas. (May 19, 2012– Help Bobo Get Home)

After almost a week of trying to get back to Haiti while being held up in various airports along the way, Bobo arrived back in Benin unsuccessful, extremely tired, and very ill. Bobo had apparently been escorted by Royal Air Marok, back from Madrid to Cotonou, and was now under Beninoise police custody. After waiting to be released for an hour and a half, Bobo’s health took a turn for the worse and Sasha traded her passport for Bobo’s free passage away from the police office and to a nearby clinic. Bobo was later diagnosed with severe malaria. (May 21, 2012– Bobo Has Malaria)

Bobo has since made a steady recovery and as of yesterday, May 31, 2012, will be attempting his journey back to Haiti.

To follow along with the team’s frequent updates, as well as get all the details not included in our update, visit SOIL’s blog, Facebook, and Twitter

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