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Tour de Latrine

The equatorial sun feels like a magnifying glass held high overhead. The hand-held GPS reads one degree South, 34 degrees East, and just over 6,000 feet above sea level. I’ve been touring projects across the Narok district of Kenya with the OFDC executive director (my mom), her Kenyan colleague, and a new Peace Corp volunteer.

Not very many Americans come to this nation rich in natural wonders with the specific goal in mind of viewing the toilet facilities. But here we are, standing with some locals in front of a primary school latrine.

I’m puzzled for a moment as I consider how best to capture such a sight with my camera, in a manner that people who see the photo could relate. If I was in the ad business, working for Coca-Cola, I wouldn’t take a photo of a Coke bottle alone. I would take a photo of glamorous happy people drinking from that bottle – the suggestion being that you, the viewer, could become that person in the photo; that enjoyment, satisfaction, and vitality could be yours. Advertisers know that people relate to feelings more than things.

So when I take a photo of the water catchments the OFDC has assisted in constructing, I ask the students to use the tap to fill their bowls. Tease out a smile and -snap- I have the perfect image to convey the value of clean water in areas prone to Typhoid and long dry seasons.

The action shot with a latrine, however, poses some difficulty – for obvious reasons – though the value of a latrine is great: disease carrying feces are contained; the students, especially girls during menstruation, gain a degree of privacy; and sudden downpours do not prevent one from doing one’s business.

Even beyond such practical considerations is the symbolic value of such a simple structure. When students can see such improvements such as latrines, water wells, and school desks, the institution of education itself is elevated as something of greater value – something to be esteemed. The message that comes across is, “Your education is important to us, and we’re willing to invest in you.”

Capturing all of that in a photo of a stinky hole in a concrete slab is a tall order though. So I take a step back, zoom out, and try to let the barren landscape creep into the shot. Better to communicate the value of what is there with the counterpoint of what used to be: nothing.

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