Flying toilets. Yep, it's a thing. Well, until recently.
Updated: Jun 12
When you lack proper sanitation — in fact, when you lack a physical toilet and a whole in the ground in a crowded shanty town just won't do the job — what do you do when you want to go?
Well, for those living in Nairobi's shanty towns, it's been common practice for many years to do your business, pop it into a plastic bag and then simply throw it on the roof. I kid you not. (Mind you, it is not unusual for some dog owners in Australia to scoop their moggie's doings into a black plastic bag and leave them all over parks or wherever they walk their dogs. I suppose if we didn't have decent sanitation, would we be all that different?)
So widespread has the practice been that each flung poop bag is known as a 'flying toilet'.
“I don’t know when the flying toilets started, but they are not good,” says Johnson Kaunange, a wheelchair user. “You never know where they are going to land or where they will fall when it rains. My wheelchair often rolls over the bags and splits them, and then the stink on the wheels is disgusting.”
But no more, it would seem. Kenya banned plastic bags in August 2017. And for Nairobi's Mathare community, it's been welcome news. Since the ban, many more people are using a communal toilet, which charges 5 Kenyan shillings (7 cents) for a single use or 100 shillings ($1.40) for a month-long family pass.
Local administrator Caleb Omondi says he's already noticed a difference now that flying toilets are effectively prohibited. “The number of users [of the communal toilets] is now much higher. We used to get about 300 people a day. Now it’s over 400,” he said. “I’m overjoyed. This is making the community cleaner.” And kids can play soccer again now that a former rubbish dump that was piled two metres high with plastic has been reclaimed.
As for the country as a whole, well, apart from fewer 'flying toilets', the waterways are clearer and the food chain less contaminated with plastic.
“Our streets are generally cleaner, which has brought with it a general ‘feel-good’ factor,” says David Ong’are, the enforcement director of the National Environment Management Authority. “You no longer see carrier bags flying around when it's windy. Waterways are less obstructed. Fishermen on the coast and Lake Victoria are seeing few bags entangled in their nets.”
Ong’are says abattoirs used to find plastic in the guts of roughly three out of every ten animals taken to slaughter. This has dropped to one in ten.
The government is now conducting a proper analysis to measure the overall effect of the measure.
Oh, and by the way, don't get caught with a plastic bag in Kenya. There are frighteningly stiff penalties: up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of four million Kenyan shillings ($57,000) for anyone producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag.
Other east African nations, including Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan are considering following suit.
Note: The image above is not meant to illustrate the phenomenon of flying toilets, but did you really think I would illustrate this story with the real thing? Trust me, do an image search; there are photos.