Of toilets and latrines

Try googling the difference between toilets and latrines and you will be thoroughly entertained by the answers you get. Here are a few of my favorites:

A toilet is used by civilians, a latrine is used by soldiers…

Toilet is flushable and can transport urine and excreta for further treatment but in latrine that is not possible…

A latrine is a stand up basin to urinate into that dumps into a hole that is the toilet….

Latrine does not flush. It’s just a hole in the ground. A toilet has a seat; like the kind at state parks…

Toilet is the receptacle you deposit your waste into. Latrine is army-speak for the room where the toilet is located…

None, although most people think of a latrine being an outhouse type facility…

Well, all this before you even complicate your thought line with washroom, bathroom, powder room, rest room, lavatory, water closet, crapper, john, ablution, piss pot, stool, throne, etc.

Why does a simple, functional spot have to be so complicated? I am reminded of the day I found out of the existence of a toilet paper museum. Yes. TOILET PAPER MUSEUM. With an Exhibit Hall and Themed Galleries. You don’t believe me? Check this out http://nobodys-perfect.com/vtpm/pages/exhibithall.html.

Anyway, my discovery was marked first with humor (who needs that?), then with surprise (that a simple item could have such a long history!) and more surprise mixed with amusement (the debate of Over or Under. Like really?). In the end, I was grateful for the discovery and I must have stolen at least an hour from the hand that feeds me just scoring through the web. Today however, I am not so sure this knowledge has not just complicated my life. Talk of TMI! When replacing tissue in the toilet at home, nay bathroom, I find myself increasingly concerned whether I place it over or under. I am an Under person and when someone else places it otherwise, I change it. I just hope they do not notice lest people think I suffer from OCD.

Well, the purpose of the post has been lost in the grill mix that is my brain as I write this. It is a Saturday morning and I am in an office out of my home country trying to finalize some work so I can go back home as soon as possible. A colleague is asking some questions that I cannot wrap my head around. Another one comes in just to say hi and start small talk when all I want is to finish the post and get back to work.

Ok. I remember now. My seven year old daughter is the reason I thought up the difference between toilet and latrine. By the way, I miss her and talking to her on phone each day has not been enough. She has 10001 questions and perfectly fits the profile of an investigator ama polisi. So this day I tell her and her sisters that we are going to visit a friend. Her first question:

“Do they have a toilet or latrine?”

The question surprised me. I know she knows about latrines as the “hole in the ground” and her grandmother did the honorable thing of having a toilet installed in her house otherwise the visits were becoming a chore! But my friend lives in the city and therefore I ask whether she has come across a latrine in Nairobi.

“Yes”, she replies. I dig deeper and find out that they have latrines at school. Again, I am surprised. She joined her new school this year and I can swear I have not seen a latrine (at least my understanding of what a latrine is). On probing further, I get it.

As long as a toilet has no seat, it is a latrine, according to this budding academic. Forget that it is flushable, or that it is inside a building. If she must squat to do her business, it is a latrine. And she hates, nay loathes it. Once, on a drive to Naivasha, she had to go. Like now (got that from her favorite cartoon character). Forget that before leaving the house, I gave firm instructions for everyone to relieve their bladders since I didn’t want us stopping on the way. So we stopped by the roadside and walked a few metres from the highway and told her to do it there. She looked at me as though I was an alien. Where? Here? How?

I tried demonstrating. You know the thing you just stand with legs apart and squirt? We did enough of that growing up and I couldn’t understand what was so difficult. So, I told her to squat but the bushes were pricking her backside. But she had to do something so we could get moving. She half-squat, half-stood and the result was urine on her legs, socks and shoes. I guess that was her first experience of what the lack of a ‘toilet’ can do to you. Nowadays, the toilet is the last room she visits when we are going out….even to the mall.

And asking whether places she has not been to before have toilets or latrines. I wonder whether she would choose to stay home in the event they only have a latrine….