Monday, 11 January 2016

Preaching About Poo: Open Defecation in Sumba

By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer

Reverend Charles Detha educates villagers on an uncomfortable topic. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

A local pastor in Kadahang village, Sumba (NTT) is about to make the most unlikely of sermons. Today, Reverend Charles Detha won’t talk to his congregation about chastity or charity. Instead, he will talk about defecating.

Indonesia is in the grips of an open defecation crisis. More than 51 million people do not use a toilet. This is the second highest number in the world after India. The effect on communities and particularly on children is severe – with the practice resulting in a raft of health problems.

The island of Sumba is greatly affected by this crisis. And an issue of such scale requires innovative solutions. So UNICEF is working directly with religious leaders in this particularly devout region to help get the message out.

“We now know that open defecation is dangerous for the health of children,” says Reverend Charles, who has been participating in programmes facilitated by UNICEF that aim to put an end to open defecation. “It can give them all sorts of diseases. So we must get involved, we must speak up.”


Reverend Charles says the topic was taboo in many villages. At first, it was difficult to preach about it. But framing open defecation as an urgent health issue made all the difference. “I use the themes of community responsibility to talk about it,” he says.

During his sermon, Reverend Charles speaks with passion about the health of everyone in the village. The crowd seems not only receptive, but comfortable talking about it. When the Reverend asks how many people have built a toilet since he began speaking on this topic, quite a number of people raise their hands.

Mbai Ranja Andung and his family feel safer with their new toilet. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

One of the villagers to raise their hand is Mbai Ranja Andung. After the church service, he is only too happy to show off his new toilet.

“We used to go just here,” Mbai Ranja says, pointing at a patch of ground behind his house. This practice would have increased the likelihood of diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea – especially for his three young children.

“This is it,” Mbai Ranja says. The large outdoor toilet is surprisingly sturdy. It’s formed around a large concrete base and finely woven palm walls. He is clearly proud of his handiwork.

Mbai Ranja says he only became aware of the health risks of open defecation through the sermons of the religious leaders. Now he hopes all the villagers will follow his example.


Mathinus Ndapanandjar leads the fight on open defecation. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Mathinus Ndapanandjar is the local kepala desa (village chief) here. For him, ending open defecation is a deeply personal issue.

“Every year, we have young children who die from diarrhea,” he says. This is not uncommon around Sumba. Diarrhea is one of the leading causes of under-five mortality across Indonesia. Good sanitation practices are vital to preventing this.

“Involving the reverend has been very valuable,” Mathinus says. He says that religious leaders are greatly respected here. The communities take their word more seriously than any advice from other individuals. In the short time that Reverend Charles and others have been focusing on open defecation, there have already been “noticeable changes”.

Mathinus now has an ambitious goal for his community. “I want us to be 100 percent free of open defecation,” he says.

It’s a goal that will save the lives of many children, now and in the years to come.

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