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What is an EcoSan toilet and how does it work? One of the primary activities dos Santos’ nonprofit Estamos engages in to promote sanitation is the installation of EcoSan toilets. To build these toilets, villagers dig two side-by-side pits, each 3-feet deep and lined with brick. Only one pit is used at a time – a concrete slab covers the pit in use. The other, meanwhile, composts excrement, eventually to be used as fertilizer. While the idea of using human waste to fertilize food crops might sound less than appetizing, experts say that, as long the waste is given enough time and heat to properly compost, all of the harmful pathogens are removed during the transformative process. Here, Santos explains exactly how an EcoSan toilet works.
What is done with the compost? From the pit, the compost goes into the fields. It is a natural fertilizer that does not cost the family money. The vegetables that grow from it are good quality. People have started to sell the compost because they see how useful it is in farming. This particular compost is natural, so it is better than chemical fertilizers and, therefore, good for the environment. So, it is becoming part of the economy of the community, both as a fertilizer and as a product that generates money.
In the aftermath of 16 years of civil war in Mozambique, Feliciano dos Santos formed his band Massukos in 1992. The band’s name comes from a type of fruit, and Santos chose it because people needed substance to “fight spiritual hunger” after such a long war. The music of Massukos, he thought, could help fulfill them.
For Santos, spreading a message about sanitation comes from a very personal motivation: As a child, he lost part of his leg to polio, contracted from contaminated water. Here, he talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee about growing up with a disability, how it shaped him and his message and why spreading the message of sanitation is so important.
The interview took place in late March, 2008, in Lichinga, Mozambique. It has been edited for clarity.
How did you first hear about EcoSan, a type of ecological sanitation toilet?
Feliciano dos Santos: EcoSan was brought here by Zimbabwean Peter Morgan. Together, we discussed different technologies to promote sanitation in the village. When he talked about ecological sanitation, I found the idea very interesting. I connected the idea with what has been happening in the communities, and right away, I said to myself, this would work perfectly.
What is unique about the use of EcoSan?
The most special thing about EcoSan in our village is that not only is it a project that promotes sanitation, such as building toilets and teaching people not to build wells next to latrines, but it also combines with various aspects of daily life, such as agriculture, economics, environment, health and nutrition.
In what ways is it connected with daily life?
For example, growing up, I always saw—and even today I see it— that after a traditional latrine was full, people covered it with sand and planted pumpkin, tomato or banana seeds on top. The food grew with an excellent quality, but people never shared the idea of growing food using human excrement as a fertilizer. So ecological sanitation, for us, was simply institutionalizing a practice that already took place in our village. That is when we realized that EcoSan not only could help us with sanitation issues, but also provide us with fertilizers to grow food.
With good ecological sanitation, there are fewer infections caused by flies, which often carry illnesses from the traditional toilets to the food. Also, because EcoSan toilets last longer— about five to seven years— than traditional toilets, someone will not have to waste energy digging a latrine all the time. EcoSan’s most direct connection to health is when we talk about hygienic procedures in our campaigns, especially letting people know about the importance of washing hands. By washing hands, one eliminates the probability of infection by 40 percent. So, ecological sanitation cuts the cycle of contamination.
What would families normally be doing if they did not have a stationary place to go to the bathroom?
Well, they would be using the traditional latrine. Had it been full, they would go to the bushes while waiting for someone to dig another hole in the yard. Also, digging in different places within the yard, they would run out of space. As they ran out of space, the family would become more likely to dig near a well, which could contaminate it, and that is very dangerous.
Talking about sanitation issues to people, especially about excrement and going to the bathroom, is a taboo that can create embarrassment. How did you overcome this embarrassment?
The most important thing was persistence. We had to insist. One of the key things was exchanging experiences with the community and having good support from the traditional leaders. In fact, working with traditional leaders was crucial. Traditional leaders are mirrors of the community. Anything they do and possess can serve as an example, and people are more likely to follow their advice. So, before talking or setting up any ecological sanitation toilets in a village, we first contacted the traditional leaders, presented the project and built the toilets in their homes. Then they were the ones who started talking to the community about how important EcoSan was.
Besides that, we took people to the homes of our activists who had EcoSan to show them how the toilets worked and how good they were. That action also served as an example for the community. Sometimes we visited people who were growing vegetables using excrement fertilizer where there used to be their old traditional latrine. We asked them, “Why do you think the vegetables are flourishing?” They said that it was because they were growing where an old latrine used to be. We told them that we wanted to help them produce more food using EcoSan.
What role does Massukos play in promoting good hygiene? How can it enhance what Estamos [Santos’ nonprofit] already does?
Through concerts, we gather a lot of people and take advantage of that moment to talk about sanitation-related issues. We also write songs with themes that focus on ecological sanitation and HIV awareness and prevention. The other thing is that we do not only talk about these issues; we serve as an example since we are part of Estamos.
Tell me about Niassa.
Well, Niassa is a pretty rich region. It has important mineral resources that are still unexcavated. We have gold, we have tourmaline, we have lakes. In terms of resources, it is a very rich region, but its potential has not been explored yet.
What do you think Niassa needs?
What Niassa needs, I think, is a big investment in the area of communications; it especially requires roads. This is a big problem in the region. However, above all, what is even more important for the region, I think, is providing people with education: Without a good education, people won’t find the infrastructure developments useful.
Everything stopped with the war. The entire region stopped. There was no development possible in that context. I remember after the independence and before the war, Niassa had many development projects. We had a treaty with China to develop agriculture by harvesting vegetables, fruits, corn—which is a basic product in the region— and beans, but everything had to stop. At the time, we had cooperation plans with the eastern countries, such as Russia -- all sorts of investments and development strategies. We thought at the time that Niassa should be the heart of agricultural production in the country, but everything had to stop because of the war. Everything was destroyed. The region stopped for 16 years, and nobody could do anything to prevent that.
How did your family react to your music and to you being a musician?
It is sad because the connotation of being a musician In Mozambique is that you are an outsider. So the first impression my family, friends and everybody had related to their concern for my future. You are a marginal person when you learn to play the guitar, and they change the way they look at you. Well, my mom accepted the fact that I was doing [music], but the first impression was that, as a musician, you couldn’t have a future.
How old were you when you got polio?
I don’t remember because I was very young, maybe four or three. So my memories are very vague.
What was it like to grow up with a disability because of polio? Did you have any other friends with polio or with disabilities because of polio?
Yes, I have friends with similar problems. I also have an uncle, my dad’s brother, who got polio. When I was a child, I think I was the only one among my friends, as far as I remember. But I saw kids on the street with disabilities, because it was an epidemic that attacked Macula at the time. According to my mom, many children got polio. However, during my childhood, I didn’t have friends with polio.
At what point during the illness did you learn that you were going to be losing your leg, or part of your leg?
I have no memories related to that. I can only remember walking with a stick, and I have no memory of being well. I don’t remember having walked. I just remember crawling. I crawled because I had problems with my legs. That is the only memory I have.
At what point did you get the prosthetic leg? And was it difficult for your family to get the resources to obtain it?
It was very difficult. You could not get a prosthetic leg in Niassa. I had never seen anybody with prosthesis before. I recall having worn round boxes tied to my leg with rubber straps in order to walk. That is something I myself figured out. Then I realized that it was possible to walk without the stick in my hand. So I traveled to Maputo because there was an orthopedic center there. I went to the hospital, and I told them my experience. They said, “Yes, we can do something for you.” In those days I painted, so I painted some letters for a company, and I used that money for purchasing my first prosthesis. I paid my own prosthesis with each one of my paintings.
Did you face discrimination because of your disability?
I think what I am today is the result of discrimination. Discrimination led me to do something for myself that is obtaining a certain social recognition. And discrimination begins at home. It is sad, but it begins at home, it comes from brothers and close friends. Anything that a person with disabilities tries to get in life, it implies a double struggle. Life is a battle for a normal person, but for somebody with disabilities, life is two battles. First, you need to convince the rest of the people that you are capable. Second, you need to transcend your own disability. I always tell society that people with disabilities are not mentally handicapped. I also say that there are no perfect people. Everybody has a certain limitation.
When did you learn how you got polio?
At the time, I didn’t know what the origin of polio was. I didn’t know anything until I began to read about it. I discovered that polio is related to the hygienic conditions in the environment. Polio is a virus that affects the intestines. It appears when there are problems related with water, with overcrowding. I then realized that my problems were linked to poverty.
How did you decide to start singing about sanitation?
The first time we composed a song about sanitation, there was a project for improving latrines here. They were selling them, so they asked us for a song about sanitization. We thought that was a very interesting idea. This happened a long time ago; I don’t remember exactly the year, maybe ’95 or ’94. This first song sought to promote hygiene [among the population]; however, we never recorded this type of song. We usually don’t record our songs about sanitation; we just sing them for the communities.
What is it about music that makes it a good carrier of the message about sanitation? Why is music so effective?
Consider this: Yesterday, we went to this community, and the first song we sang was the one that says, “Let us wash our hands, let us wash our hands.” When we were driving there, all the children began to sing this song. So that idea stays in people’s heads and stimulates a process. Whenever a mother hears that song, she remembers that she needs to wash her hands. Music stays in our head. If we observe the feelings that have an impact on people – when they are sad, when somebody dies – they are all portrayed by music.
Music touches something deep inside people. Music is also used in therapies for mental illnesses. Music has a potential to remain recorded in the mind. As long as the music starts, people remember what they forgot [such as washing their hands], so music becomes effective. And it is effective not only because it stays in people’s minds, but also because it can be carried wherever they go – [its message] is part of them.