The African Farm Toilet

      18/7/2018       Next-->

I remember our childhood toilet on the farm in Africa so well. The four year old me would make my way through the vegetable beds to a grey weathered wooden hut perched on concrete to protect it from the ever-active termites. Inside, in the cool shade, were softly curved wooden seats, one small and low for the children, and one large for the adults, hung over a deep dark hole smelling strongly of some unsophisticated detergent. The experienced visitor would examine the little hut carefully for signs of insects and snakes which might surprise the unwary, for the folklore of Africa is populated with stories of sudden stings and bites and frights incurred in what should be a meditative interlude in the day's rounds.
I would take a book to read, or pore over the glistening horses at some faraway Agriculture Show in The Farmer's Weekly journal, their heads held high in shining leather and buckle by stern tanned men in khaki, with deepset eyes and polished boots. Or else I would just sit with the door open, watching the birds in the thorn trees; the hornbills screeching in their harsh voices, the sculptured grey loeries imploring unseen enemies to 'go 'way', the sweet pearly doves cooing and bowing among the grass, and lizards basking on rocks, gleaming like Russian ornaments in turquoise and glints of red.
Sometimes a cow would graze her way past, wrapping the long dry grass around her tough tongue and tugging it away from the roots. Enthroned in the wonderfully luxurious perfumed toilets of The Savoy in London I have had a nostalgic smile at the long, long road from there to here, and all points between. I have squatted on rickety toilets over waterfalls in Indonesia, with the spray enveloping me like a cool curtain; dark, mysterious mossy joints among rice paddies where the water is the colour of flat cola, and cheery communal places where the village women do their laundry, shower and squat in feminine togetherness under an open sky on a gently sloping concrete floor. It is a wonderfully social activity telling women in basic Indonesian all the facts of one's life while concentrating on a daily need. By the time I rose and arranged my skirt they knew I had three children and that my husband worked with disabled people, and no, we weren't very rich, and yes, we loved living in Java.
The most eccentric toilet we ever used was a slowly-leaning loosely assembled aggregate of thin planks on a pier on a huge river in Borneo. Sitting gingerly on the toilet I could plainly see the queue of Indonesian travellers waiting for the ferry and wondered if they in turn could see me. They didn't seem to be at all interested in my blushes or in spying on me through the gaps in the walls, so perhaps not..
In a toilet under the stairs in a loud, crowded mall in Manila I laughed out loud at a sign which read, 'Don't squat like a frog, sit like a princess'. This comes with a stick figure drawing of warning and admonition for the benefit of unlettered visitors from the provinces.
When my little brother was old enough to be escorted to the outside toilet I would hold his soft hand and lead him there, talking of long ago childish things. One day I had to lead him away quietly and quickly, away from a great gleaming python sunning himself along a tree trunk at the firewood pile. Brother and sister would spend mornings making little log cabins of the wood chips scattered around the firewood store, placing their plastic farm animals in corrals.
Then to finish up in the toilet I would tear a square of torn-up newspaper hanging on a ring for a final polish. Nowadays I have a smile at the aisle in the British supermarket full of toilet papers in all thicknesses and colours, available at astronomical prices. Some are even printed with leaves and flowers, and coloured spots a la Damien Hirst, he of the sheep in formaldehyde creations.
Back in Asia my daughter and I quickly learned to carry a wad of tissues for the toilet, because most toilets only had a water spray on a hosepipe to freshen up as in Muslim tradition.
The worst toilet I have ever visited was at a garage on the long Silk Road from Tehran to Isfahan in Iran. The memory still gives me the shudders. It was in the depths of an Iranian winter, with bewildered camels in the snow out on the desert, and long icicles streaming behind the huge trucks. I had to gingerly feel my way in the dark to a hole in the concrete. Fortunately my sense of smell was dimmed by the cold. Hoisting up my long black coat and jersey underneath, I had to pull down my pants with the other hand, and creakily lower myself onto the black odorous hole. Great astronomers would have been intrigued by this black hole. Keeping my coat held high was important, for every few seconds a tsunami of brown water would advance under the door, activated by an arrival on the forecourt. The desert wind howled around my exposed end so that by the time I was ready to rise my joints were frozen solid! How I longed for the delights of The Savoy.
And further still, at the pinnacle of my social climbing, I found that the toilets at Buckingham Palace had the same long carved plank to sit on as my childhood seat, although it was of polished and gleaming mahogany, and the high ceilings were trimmed with elegant scrolls and hanging chandeliers.

Liz Davies

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