I met Celeste Mavia by the small communal sanitation block which she manages in her quarterao, or neighbourhood. She talked with purpose as she proudly showed me how well the 35 households in her quarterao were paying their contributions regularly. She spoke first in halted Portuguese, but continued with my colleague in her local dialect of Changana. She spoke of the appalling, dank, shed of a latrine her and her community had previously had to put up with; where flies would fly in as you made your way into the stinking dark space. With only a torn sheet to cover them from passers-by, the toilet was not the place where women would want to go, perhaps using a plastic bag in the night and throwing it with the rubbish.
This sanitation block had been constructed by WSUP to demonstrate how low-cost sanitation could be built by the municipality in this dense housing area. It provides two toilets each for men and women plus a wash cubicle. A 1500 litre water tank sits on the roof to capture water from the mains supply which comes alive for only four hours each morning. Celeste scrutinises the costs like a business woman rather than as one might expect for “communal” facilities. She heads the committee that meets regularly to review the income and expenditure, seeing what the meter reading says and working out on average how much each household is taking for their water needs. They’ve decided for now to make it a fixed monthly cost of 60 metacais for each household – a little over $2.25 per house – which currently more than covers the water bill each month, but also contributes to a fund they’re building up for the bigger maintenance costs that are expected to come in the following year, like de-sludging the septic tank.
Right now, WSUP agreed to let the quarterao decide their own tariff, and would monitor results with Celeste on a regular basis. What’s apparent is that the close-knot community structure of the bairros exerts an exceptional force on everyone to contribute. Celeste described an incident when a household refused to clean the toilets, like everyone else was doing on a rota basis. The committee met and decided to report it to the Secretary of the Bairro, who then brought the issue up at a meeting with all Quarterao leaders of the bairro and soon everyone knew that the family would not clean their quarterao toilets. The family was therefore embarrassed into agreeing to do their fair share.
Nonetheless, the toilets look very well maintained as does the entire cluster of houses in which this toilet block is located. She says that people used to get quite sick, and when only a corrugated iron sheet separated you from your neighbours home, everyone would know when someone was sick. But people don’t get sick so often since the toilet block was built six months ago.
Celeste is unique in that she’s female and she’s a local leader. She’s highly respected by the others in her Quarterao but as she tells me, she had to earn her respect. She’s the head of her family, meaning her husband has either left her, has died or is working out of the city. She says you have to know how to speak to your neighbours and how to conduct yourself with more senior leaders of the community. She’s a beacon of inspiration to other women around her, and as my colleagues tell me, she’s inspired other women to speak out which has created momentum amongst other women in the bairro.