To Build a Latrine

Story and photos by Andy Prinsen


… about eight feet down and the width and length of a refrigerator. Davit Mapyapya climbs in using small footholds he has carved along the walls, his hands flat against the ground as he lowers his tall, lanky frame inside. It’s 1pm here in Kapelabulungu, a small village in Zambia’s Mumbwa district. The sun sometimes tucks behind the clouds, offering a momentary pause from its blaze, but the relief is always temporary. Davit and his three eldest sons have barely begun to work before their skin is already glistening with sweat. They scoop the last of the rocky soil from the bottom, sending it up one load at a time in a green bucket with a red rope tied around the handle. They know not to make this pit much deeper, to always keep it less than three meters deep to prevent contaminating ground water. This pit – this hole in the ground placed just between the end of their home compound and the beginning of their fields – is the beginning of a latrine that Davit thinks will serve his family for the next decade.

The “triggering,” as it’s known here in Zambia, began back in August, says Edward Mashili, a man standing nearby wearing a green ball cap with a logo of a figure squatting in the weeds, doing his business, the whole image overlaid with a big red slash like a no parking sign. The logo says “Open Defecation Free Zambia” and he wears this hat in his role as a Community Champion, visiting the villages in his area with a message of improved sanitation for all. He is one piece of the growing movement towards Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) here in Zambia, an effort that has seen 1 million people introduced to improved sanitation practices. A big part of this push has been to encourage the construction of latrines all around the country, a push that has found Mr. Mapyapya and his sons here today, sweating in the midday heat to erect a brand new brick latrine for the family to use.

Davit says something to one of the younger boys and he darts off back toward the family home, returning a minute later with an axe – a homemade tool consisting of a teardrop-shaped, sharpened piece of metal, the skinnier end pushed through a slit at the end of a thick branch. He uses the axe to take a sizable, half-square-shaped notch out of the middle of a large log. He does the same with a second log and they are both positioned across the center of the pit. This will be the support for the latrine’s floor, the two lined up notches forming the hole into the pit of the latrine. It’s hard not to be impressed by the simple genius of construction methods here in the village. In the absence of tape measures, everything here is done by eyeball, check, and adjust. The number of ways that have been conjured here to utilize the most abundant resources – mud, sticks, and grass – is astounding. After the hole has been completely covered with logs, the gaps in between are filled with smaller stones, the young boys scurrying around to help, their skinny fingers wrapped around handfuls of stones. The hole in the middle is covered and dirt is shoveled back over the whole works, again creating an even surface, slightly elevated from ground level.

The cow dung ash is mixed with earth to create mortar for the walls.

The bricks are made of mud – they were shaped into their rectangular, box-like form with wooden molds and left out in the sun to dry for two days. Davit then stacked the bricks in a pile about four feet high, leaving a cavity of space inside. He built a fire in that cavity and then sealed the opening, packing mud around the outside of the whole stack to seal in the heat and the smoke. The heat would harden and cure the bricks over the next five days, turning the brown, mud-colored stack into the rusty-red bricks you see all over the Zambian countryside. They begin simply enough, placing four bricks on the dirt – the slightly elevated, flat-topped mound now covering the logs that in turn are covering the pit. The same red rope they used to pull the bucket in and our of the put is now repurposed as a straightening guide, Davit wrapping it around the corners of the bricks until it forms a perfect, rectangular outline that will become the boundaries of the latrine. They use more bricks to fill in between the corners, five by four, leaving inch-wide gaps in between.

Then Davit is scraping at the ground with the pick, clearing the dry grasses away from a sewer-cover-sized space. One of the boys shows up with a bucket of cow dung and pours it into the cleared area. He is followed by another boy, using a rag to hold a hot metal plate with two large, burning coals from the cooking fire. They use these coals along with some straw to start a fire on the pile of cow dung. The dung will need to burn overnight to create cow dung ash – a lightweight, low thermally conductive material that when mixed with mud will form the mortar holding the latrine’s bricks together.

Day two finds Davit in tall, black rubber boots. He has been in his fields since 5am, tilling the soil, preparing it for the oncoming rainy season. He grips another homemade tool in his hands – a hoe with the metal blade jutting out of a large knot at one end of a hardened tree branch. He begins swinging the hoe over his head and bringing it down onto the soil, cutting wedged digits out of the ground. The soil here is hard and dry and he lets out a little grunt with each swing, slowly pivoting in a circle around the depression he is making. Before long he has formed a new pile of loosened dirt and is spreading the cow dung ash on top, sprinkling it from ledge of the hoe. His son begins pouring water onto the pile as Davit stirs the mixture together, the liquid sinking into the cracks and forming a thick, tacky paste.

Once they have made the dung mortar, the building process is surprisingly quick. Mortar is spread between the brick outline laid yesterday and then they begin to work their way up. The son holds the level to the wall every couple of layers to check its evenness, making small adjustments to individual bricks as they go. The second layer goes on and then the third and the fourth, one brick after another, Davit using a spatula-like piece of metal – the removed blade from another garden hoe – and slathers mortar in between the cracks. He brings out a wooden door frame he has constructed for this purpose, saying he doesn’t have a wood plane so he used the axe to shape logs into boards like these. The boards are rough hewn, but look surprisingly good – very straight for being hand-made with an axe, and a hand-made axe at that. The son holds the door frame in place as bricks are built up around it, playing with the leveling string, wrapping it around a brick and sticking it into the mortar – entertaining himself through the monotonous task like any kid helping his dad with a project.

A cow ambles over and begins picking leaves off a bush a few feet away. Everyone ignores her huge frame, spreading mortar and building up the bricks, row after row. When the wall has reached Davit’s waist, he says he will allow these first six layers to dry overnight. Tomorrow the wall will continue its upward progress, finishing when it has been built two layers above the top of the door frame. Then, Davit says, he will build a roof of branches to keep out the rain and provide shade from the sun. He will pour a concrete floor, complete with foot-shaped raised platforms to keep the users feet off the ground. The floor will also be washable, as instructed by Edward, the Community Champion that has been advising him in the construction process. To finish, he will build a door of branches, providing privacy and a barrier to the entry of animals.

. . .

As morning fades to afternoon, Davit stands alongside another latrine, one he finished last year. He looks out to his fields, possibly considering the work still to be completed before the day is over. Nothing comes easy here in the village, but this morning progress has been made. He says the latrine he built today should give his family ten years of service, and he seems proud of that. And it’s that pride – that sense self-driven sense of accomplishment – that has made CLTS in Zambia a success. In the end, it all comes down to the effort of hardworking individuals, be they the tireless community champions out in the field, educating and motivating, or families themselves desiring more sanitary facilities for their families.


Andy Prinsen is a Communications Associate with Akros. He has a masters degree in public affairs and a bachelors in journalism, both from Indiana University. He specializes in visual communication and photography.