Travels with my Toilet Roll

Before my first visit to Africa, a ruddy-faced ex-colonial moustache offered me two pieces of advice: shake your boots before putting them on, and don't look in holes in the ground. The holes he meant were those housing creatures that might bite or sting or otherwise ruin your day, but it was another less avoidable sort of hole, the 'long drop' toilet, which unnerved me more.

I don't waste my time abroad fretting about germs and avoiding salad, nor am I usually preoccupied with bodily functions. Absence of a seat, flush and soft toilet paper might not trouble the properly intrepid, but the need for yoga-like contortions when confronting a malodorous and vertiginous hole in the ground toilet can make some lonely travellers long for home. Especially, as in my case, if last night's goat stew seemed to have a spirit of adventure all of its own.

It was Election Day in northwestern Uganda. The jeep had lurched arthritically along rough red tracks through the shimmering heat of the day to an isolated village polling station near Koboko, a dusty place with no reason to be remembered except it had been the birthplace of Idi Amin, Uganda's notorious dictator. Koboko did not wear this dubious fame with any pride. Too close to the dangerous turmoil of eastern Congo, too distant from the Ugandan capital Kampala to be a priority for development aid, Koboko had no gorillas, elephants or refugees to draw visitors. The polling station, neatly arranged under mango trees, had the polling 'booths' - plastic washing up bowls on school chairs with a pen on a string tied to them - the requisite distance apart. There was a padlocked ballot box, local officials stiff with responsibility, indelible ink to mark voters' thumbs to prevent fraud, but nobody voting. It seemed Koboko's interest in the wider world reflected the world's interest in Koboko. People dressed in their best Sunday clothes sat lethargic, not even the children greeting me with the usual excited 'muzungu! ' ('white person') and pleas for pens and sweets. I shook many hands, checked neat lists, smiled, and shared the offered battered plastic beaker of sugar cane, the tepid sweetness sticky against my teeth. All done and politeness satisfied at last, it was time for what the Americans call a 'comfort break'. I had never thought it so well named. A small child wearing a shiny pink party frock but no shoes shyly slipped her hand into mine and led me across the school yard.

I'm English, and female - I prefer what I do in a toilet to be a private activity. But observing my progress towards the disconcertingly conspicuous toilet hut, local apathy suddenly vanished. Never mind the might of democracy and voting for a new president – what the muzungu was going to do in the hut seemed of far greater communal interest. I found myself joined by more escorts and surrounded by animated chatter. Weakly, with a limp smile and feeble wave, I attempted to shoo my audience away and to indicate I would be fine on my own from here, thank you. Nobody moved. Several beamed encouragement. A kind lady with no teeth even opened the door for me. I was committed.

Inside it was light enough to determine the hole, but mercifully too dim to see below. Ignoring the soft soundtrack of giggles and whispers outside, I concentrated on balance; not falling in, not dropping anything crucial into the abyss, not toppling against the flimsy walls in case they collapsed around me, Tom-and-Jerry style. Tricky manoeuvres, especially when trying not to breathe in too deeply. As relief of one sort was replaced by the leg cramps that the posture required always seemed to cause me, I was quietly alarmed to notice a knothole at child’s head height in the wooden wall with a cheeky bright brown eye looking through it. Dust stirred by curious feet shuffling outside eddied in a beam of sunlight through gaps in the planking. The clench of homesickness at that moment was far more crippling than the effects of the goat stew.

J Cetti

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