Field Notes

How a Few Questions Can Save Lives in Liberia

by: Meredith Maines
September 12, 2013


Abigail Fahnbulleh, Living Water Liberia's hygiene promoter, starts saving lives just by asking questions. In Liberia, the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach she's helping to pilot in five communities begins that way—in conversation with community members. It's all about setting the scene for the light bulb to go off. Once communities identify their own challenges, they can be empowered to solve them. But this "triggering process" requires talking about something uncomfortable—the bathroom.

Because 2.5 billion people still lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, open defecation—the cause of many waterborne diseases—still causes a major threat to clean water. CLTS process brings this correlation to light.

So Abigail begins: Could she see where they gather water? Do they farm? What do they eat? After they eat, what happens? Abigail looks around, and waits for someone to admit they must "toilet," except their toilet is a field.

Using sawdust and whitewash as mapping tools and the ground as their canvas, community members plot out for Abigail where they gather water in relation to where they are forced to defecate. She asks, when it rains, where does the sawdust go? Someone will reply that the sawdust—representing their "toilet"—washes into their water source. Someone else will come forward to suggest they build their own latrine. By visualizing their behavior through this map, they see that a latrine would save them from contracting diarrhea, often deadly in the developing world. And right then and there, with that admission, the triggering process has been a success. A community came to its own conclusion about how to save lives and pave the way for clean water.

"If you teach community members to build their own latrines, they'll learn why the need one and value it as their own," Abigail said.

Our staff then support communities as they innovate their own latrines, clotheslines and dish racks from local materials. They take ownership and pride in their solutions—a much better outcome than if we imposed our own!

Abigail continues to monitor each community long after they've started to succeed. With a weekly visit, she's able to support them as they continue to integrate life-saving behavior into community life.

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