Before volunteering for 10 weeks in Santa Rosa, Guyana, an Amerindian community with a population of 300, I’d never considered the logistics of building an outhouse!
We arrived, ten Canadians and two Australians, to find that we’d be staying in a cozy bamboo framed house shaded by a giant mango tree. There was just one problem: no outhouse. Twelve people staying together in one house for the duration of ten weeks equals frequent visits to the surrounding – somewhat sparse – forest, a popular location for firewood hunting and children’s games. We needed an outhouse, and fast. I was one of four willing volunteers given the task of building us a toilet, but where to start?
First we needed materials. Conscious that the grassy savannah surrounding Santa Rosa meant firewood was a valuable commodity, we scavenged a few spindly branches, collected some dried palm leaves, and figured we’d squat instead of building a seat. Our project was only ten weeks, right? We could handle it.
News of our outhouse project spread within an hour throughout the community. Soon afterward, three gangly teenage boys, no older than 14, came down and began kicking a worn soccer ball around near our building site. They wore scruffy athletic shorts, and no shoes or shirts. They smiled at us, laughing every now and again, as we dug a hole, shaped our meagre collection of spindly sticks into something like a teepee, and balanced a few palm leaves between them. The finished product looked about as sturdy as a sandcastle at high tide.
The boys came to inspect our work and nearly fell in the hole we’d dug, laughing great belly laughs. One of the boys promptly ran off towards the centre of town.
“Where’s he going?” I asked, confused.
“He’ll bring you back something for your toilet,” the oldest one said, smiling wide. “But now we dig.”
“Dig?” I said, still confused.
“You must dig a deeper hole,” he said, pointing to our three foot deep hole.
The oldest boy, Troy, dismantled our structure with one hand, tossed the materials aside, grabbed a shovel and jumped into the hole to dig. The other boys followed as I stood awkwardly with my three fellow volunteers staring down into the hole. The boys began to sing.
The afternoon wore on and the hole went down. After an hour, I could no longer see the top of Troy’s head. We busied ourselves spreading the pile of dirt about the area. It felt good. Eventually, the boy who’d run off returned holding an armful of empty burlap sacks.
Fuelled by the arrival of more boys, our fellow volunteers, a battery-operated tape player spinning soca music, and some shared orange juice crystals, the atmosphere turned into more of a community dance than a shoddy construction site. By dinnertime, the boys had dug a hole that was eight feet deep, constructed a toilet seat from four pieces of smooth wood, and built a sturdy looking wooden structure covered by burlap bags. There was even a burlap roof! Before we could offer any more thanks, or dinner in exchange for their hard work, the boys were off down the road, running and pushing each other, laughing all the while.