Monday, November 10, 2008

Project: Composting Latrine

This is it!

We are setting a deadline. I told my community members (those active in the current project) that the latrines must be finished by December.

The composting latrine project has been limping along for 7 months and before we lose all of our sand again or before I lose my mind, we will now focus on "goal-setting."

How close are we? Very close, so close that it is painful to see so much construction and yet no grand finale.

Here's a view of Latrine #1 - the first of the four:
It's true that Latrine #2 is waiting for penca for the walls (the family doesn't want to cut wood or the material before the right season), so in reality, both Latrine #1 and 2 have come a long way. But #3 and #4 need a lot of work. There is still mixing to do and pvc to connect for #3, but at least the stairs are already finished. I should include a photo of just how lovely they came together, an artistic mix of block and river rocks.

Latrine #4 has been a tragic epic poem. The original family was in and out of the community and rarely available to communicate. Eventually, the decision was made to seek out a new family with which to work. Denying a family a project is a delicate matter and after 2 more months, we smoothed out who will get the latrine. Currently we have moved all of the materials to the new site, now we are prepared to start construction and we still need to level out the ground where we will begin throwing the slab and blocking. We've got a lot to do!

To illustrate better, here's a view from Jess Mehl's project in the community north of me. Jess is in turquoise and I'm in kahki, we're working with 2 of my guys from Quebrada Mina.
This "pilot program" began with great enthusiasm and I think it can end that way. I'm still optimistic that things will go well once people see the construction-phase finished, only then we can begin the "interesting" part of this project: maintaining a composting latrine and seeing the product from "the box."

Former Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Mehl completed an in-depth study of the compost resulting from this style of latrine. Go here for the full report: Pathogen Destruction and Aerobic Decomposition in Composting Latrines: A Study from Rural Panama

Cultural Differences

Throughout Central America, it is a familiar sound. “Sssssst” When I hear this, I imagine an angry pet owner about to yell. “Sssssst” will make the dog or cat flinch or take its paws off the table. Where I grew up, people say: “Sssssst” when an animal is misbehaving.

Why do I hear this while walking in the city? This noise doesn’t come from pet owners, it comes from random guys in the streets – often construction workers. What does this sound mean? For anyone who hasn’t been to this part of the world, or to Panama at least, it is well-understood that men and boys say: “Sssssst” when they want your attention – a girl’s attention.

I can’t remember the last time I heard a girl “Sssssst” someone, I think it was in a grocery store and a lady wanted to talk to the cashier…

What are the responses to: “Sssssst”? Well, there are very few options as far as I’m concerned. On bad days, you might yell: “Callete!” on a good day you might not respond at all, on a mediocre day you might grimace without turning around, on a very bad day you might walk faster and throw your finger in the air without looking to see who’s been ssssssing.

There really is no good response if being “whistled” at like this bothers you. For me, depending on the day, the spectrum of response is between: angry or “ho-hum” regarding this Latino phenomenon. So after practicing for a year, trying to adjust and accept this behavior, my rule is “no response, ever.”

On November 5th I was walking to the laundry mat in Davíd city – I was getting ready to pack up and take a bus back to site. I passed the construction area that had now thankfully been cleaned up and finished, this part of town has seen some new buildings sprout up. I was almost to the laundry place and had just passed an auto shop when I suddenly heard: “Sssssst.” It had been a good day so far, so ignoring this was no trouble at all; I kept walking without breaking stride. Then I heard: “Sssssst, Obama campeón.” This stopped me; I stopped and turned and saw 3 guys smiling from the depths of the garage. Suddenly realizing that I had broken my “no response, ever” rule, I smiled back.