Embracing good sanitation even at the graveyard

By Doreen Matonga

Heading towards the graveyard at Nkhumbalume village is an extraordinary scene. In a place that is highly respected by many communities in Malawi are the usual thickets and the quietness of the graveyard. But in Nkhumbalume Village in Traditional Authority Mabvwele in Mchinji is a small structure just outside the entrance to this sacred place — a pit latrine stands tall in the midst of this quietness.

To the community there, this is not a strange thing, rather having the gravediggers and those sending off their loved one to openly defecate is not allowed in their community.

“The one who goes to the graveyard is a person who is living, hence they need to use a latrine,” says the eloquent Chigwa Majamesi who is Group Village Head Nkhumbalume who heads a community of 41 villages between Nkhumbalume and Chidzeka villages.

From his speech, it was clear that with strong leadership, it is possible to eliminate open defecation in a community within a short time.

Group Village Head Nkhumbalume shows the toilet just outside the graveyard in his area ©UNICEF/Malawi/2017/Matonga

“We decided to have a latrine at the graveyard to save our children and women. Every time the gravediggers worked in the graveyard they needed a latrine to use. Without a latrine nearby they ended up practising open defecation. As a community we thought this could easily bring diseases in the village,” he says sighting that every time there is a funeral the community brings food to serve those that dig the grave.

“The people that dig the graves, do a commendable job in the village, they need dignity. That’s why as a community we decided to give them this dignified room to use every time they are working here,” says Group Village Head Nkhumbalume.

But getting the latrine in a graveyard wasn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, Nkhumbalume could be among the very few villages in Malawi that have embraced good sanitation and hygiene practises to the extent of having a toilet just outside the village graveyard.

As soon as the village had been declared open defecation free (ODF), the chief called for a meeting which impressed upon the community that if indeed the ODF status was to be fully achieved, they needed a latrine for the village gravediggers.

“I was in the forefront moulding the bricks for the construction of the toilet. And my community followed,” he says. Within three days the bricks were done and the village later moved to do the actual construction. Since then Group Village Headman Nkhumbalume says the village has completely changed.

A walk around the village is a testimony of a community that has fully embraced improved sanitation and good hygiene practices. A random visit to the homes in the village revealed that each home had a clean latrine, a bathroom shelter, trash disposal area as well as hand washing facilities outside each toilet.

A woman washes her hands in Mchinji District; a clear sign of adoption of good hygiene practices ©UNICEF/Malawi/2017/Matonga

As a measure of ensuring that no household relaxes in sanitation, the village has a village sanitation and hygiene committee.

Eva Salimu, Health Surveillance Assistant for Kapanga Health Centre says with support from UNICEF, they have managed to ensure that many villages and TAs in the district are declared ODF.

“We realised that with good sanitation a lot of things can change in our communities. The biggest change that we have noticed is the people’s willingness to change their behaviour and do the unthinkable- building a latrine just outside their graveyard,” she says indicating that this is sign of people understanding the importance of improved sanitation and good hygiene practices.

Group Village Head Nkhumbalume explains the progress in ensuring adoption of good sanitation and hygiene practices ©UNICEF/Malawi/2017/Matonga

As we walk out of Nkhumbalume village, Group Village Head Nkhumbalume challenges us that he could be used as a role model in others communities that need encouragement. It is this daring spirit of the community in Nkhumbalume and many more that could bring Malawi’s desires of an ODF society to reality.

UNICEF with support from the European Union is implementing a water, sanitation and hygiene project in 15 districts in Malawi, in support of the MDG (now SDG) goals. Mchinji is among those districts where UNICEF is working with the District Health Office to ensure improved and equitable access to water and sanitation and improved hygiene practices.

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