When I was young I can well remember the most shocking cultural experience of leaving the UK for France. It was the public toilets, which contained two solid spots to place your feet, a whole in the ground, and no seat. Help! The Italians also used to be good at providing this kind of thing, and many years later I encountered the same thing in Bulgaria. If South Africans know about these kind of toilets at all, they may be referred to as “Indian” or “Turkish” toilets, something strange and oriental. In fact they are equally common in much of Africa. This kind of thing is, of course, not at all modern and smacks of a disgusting barbarism, or at least that is what the journalists at the UK Daily Mail (or its International version available locally) would have us believe. Last year the Mail reported in horror that squatting toilets had been installed in a shopping centre in the northern British town of Rochdale, after consultations with local Muslims. The “great British toilet” was under threat from such folly, evoking memories of unhygienic squat toilets in the more unfortunate and backward parts of the world. The Westerners who poured into Beijing for the Olympic games in 2008 had the same objections – the Chinese use squatting toilets all the time. But Anglo-Saxons don’t know how to - so the Chinese government had to install thousands of sitting toilets for the visitors. And this lack of squatting abilty, it seems, is at the root of all the problems, and is indeed the reason why Mr Crapper’s water closet remains the kind of toilet everybody wants, even if two-thirds of the world continues to squat.
In our own country the political shenanigans last year over toilet provision in Makhaza has somewhat overshadowed previous concerns about the type of toilets on offer, with the general view that ventilated improved pit toilets (yes, they really are “VIP toilets”) are a real bottom-of-the-range option (despite what the developers might say). Everybody these days wants a “proper” western toilet, connected to the highly expensive sewage system, flushing away 50 litres of potable water per person per day, and on which you can sit. I encountered the same in India many years ago, where middle-class Indians were proudly installing Western-style toilets in their new houses (even Indians who considered themselves environmentally aware).
Yet the people who squat are doing themselves a favour. Black Africans have less constipation than white South Africans. Colon cancer among black Africans is virtually unheard of, while colon and prostate problems are ever-increasing in Westernised populations worldwide (including African-Americans). The inability to squat regularly , and thus to strengthen one’s pelvic muscles, seems also to be linked to the increase in Caesarian sections among Western women (though, in South Africa at least, a medical profession very keen on intervention is also likely to be responsible for our desperately high Caesarian rate). Everybody squatted on the loo until a couple of centuries ago, and while lack of hygiene resulted in many deaths (and still does in many parts of our continent), they weren’t from colon cancer.
There is no doubt that squatting is an essential and healthy position in which to do one’s business, and those Arabs who have caused consternation on airlines by insisting on putting their feet on the seat – so they can squat while they drop – are certainly doing themselves a favour by doing so. It seems that the only able-bodied people who suffer from having to squat are the elderly if they are obese and thus can’t hold their weight up easily. Oh, hello, isn’t that another modern western problem being forced on the world by fast food manufacturers… The wrinkly Mail writers can hold their crap in and get themselves all culturally constipated about it, but they really shouldn’t force their attitude on the rest of the world. Except that, being Mail writers, they probably couldn’t even find their pelvic floor with a GPS, so their fury at others is probably evidence of all sorts of things Freud could tell you about better than me.
Now all this is all very well, of course, but what are you – modern, middle-class South Africa - going to do about it personally? If, like me, you’ve spent all of your life doing number twos on a sitting loo, and you still have sitting loos in your house, and you don’t go often enough to countries with squat loos, there doesn’t seem to be much hope. That modern curse, an un-irrigated colon, waits continually for a serious flushing. A friend of mine chanced upon a “Turkish toilet” at the plumbing supply shop, as she was installing the plumbing on her new eco-friendly property, but this seems to have been the only one available, and by the time we considered one for our building, we couldn’t locate any (and our plumber said it was too late for changing the piping plans). There is, funnily enough, not a high demand for them in the suburbs of Cape Town at the moment. However, there is also, I have discovered, a “Natural Way” platform for sale which fits snugly around your favourite bog and turns it into a raised squat. Quite expensive though, and you’d have to import it from the US, so perhaps best to build one yourself in the time-honoured South African manner.
For while there is not much love for the squat toilet here, there is a sense of original freedom sometimes about not being connected to the municipal sewage services. It is a freedom which many wealthy South African suburbanites continue to cherish, proudly showing off their long-drops to visitors to their second homes in the bush. It may be one reason that composting toilets are taking off, at least in rural areas, as a wonderful way to turn all that biomass back quickly into something useful for agriculture, without all that colossal waste of water which our city prudery insists on. Meanwhile, back in the city where compost toilets are still something councils are wary of, I’ll let you know how I get on with building a platform of my own. One advantage of this over installing a full-scale squat loo would be that it can be detached - so that Aunt Maud doesn’t get the shock of her life next time she comes to visit.
Of course, there remains the question of the toilet roll and all that paper. One of the problems with public squat toilets which leads Anglo-Saxons (and all inclined in an Anglo-Saxonly direction) to turn up their noses, is that, because there is a general hole and no instant flush mechanism, toilet paper tends to block things up unless you get the water bucket anyway. Which leads to two alternative options: a quick colonic flush with a hose (offered in some upmarket Arab places), or the good-old left-hand and a bucket of water technique. If you’d ever wondered why Indians eat food with their right hand, and we all shake with our right hand, and why left-handers have historically been accused of being “cack-handed”, well, there’s your answer. A bit of soap afterwards should help of course.