From mango tree-shaded latrines to flush toilets, my Toilet Story

13 November 2020
Toilet Stories. Portrait of Yvonne Bailey-Smith, WaterAid supporter, novelist and toilet enthusiast. Yvonne said: "As a WaterAid supporter, I was thrilled to be asked to be part of ‘Toilet Stories’. It’s so true that every toilet tells a story – just  ...
WaterAid/ People's Postcode Lottery/ Elena Heatherwick

Whether shaded under a mango tree in Jamaica immersed in bird song or pitched below a busy London street with footsteps above, the private and safe space of toilets has always been particularly special to Yvonne Bailey-Smith.

Born in Jamaica, the now London-based writer and psychotherapist tells us why she shared her obsession with toilets as part of our virtual exhibition, Toilet Stories, to mark World Toilet Day on 19 November. 

Growing up in the Jamaican countryside, I remember every home having a latrine which was often secluded from the main house. My family’s was behind a screen of mighty mango, avocado pear and pimento trees. 

The space was small, with a couple of squeaky wooden steps leading up to it. Inside, a single pit was covered by a removable wooden seat. The floorboards were as rickety as the steps and the large gaps between them meant, on a bright day, the contents could be seen.

I do not recall much of a smell, however, as my grandfather regularly added limestone as an antidote. It was not unusual to share the facility with the resident toad or the odd visiting scorpion.   

From our Toilet Stories exhibition, this is Agnes Muhishire's toilet - the first one she's ever had in her life. It was built by the community. Agnes said "I am very happy because I don't have to collect grass every morning to put on top of the roof."
WaterAid/ People's Postcode Lottery/ Elena Heatherwick
This image was taken in Rwanda as part of our new exhibition, Toilet Stories. Agnes Muhishire – who owns this toilet – remembers when just one in 10 families had a toilet of their own and diseases blighted her community.

The beauty in privacy

To my mind, our latrine offered the ultimate in privacy. My first sight of a flush toilet was when I took a few tentative steps to the tiny space on my flight to London in October 1969. That was a strange experience. Using a facility like this did not come naturally to me.

Sitting in my mother’s flushable London toilet got me thinking that these were actually beautiful spaces which serve a number of purposes.

Toilets are a reminder that, just like consuming safe drinking water and getting at least one decent meal a day, it’s essential for all of us to safely get rid of our waste. A safe environment to do so is a human right and we must not risk people getting sick just for want of such a basic facility. 

Looking back, the thing I had truly loved about our latrine was the total privacy it gave.

Over 50 years of being a resident in the UK has given me the opportunity to see how the ‘private’ in terms of toilets has become the ‘public.’ And so this is how I find myself the subject of an interview all about my obsession with toilets for an online exhibition of the same theme – Toilet Stories. 

Sitting having my portrait taken by photographer Elena Heatherwick while sharing my childhood memories with journalist Sally Williams just before the second lockdown, I thought about how toilets can be peaceful and reflective spaces.

Looking back, the thing I had truly loved about our latrine was the total privacy it gave. If you don’t count the resident toad, it was just you, sitting alone, a considerable distance from the house and passers-by in total quiet apart from the cacophony of animal and bird noises which tended to blend into your day. 

A portrait of Teresia Ukwitegetse from the Toilet Stories exhibition
WaterAid/ People's Postcode Lottery/ Elena Heatherwick
A portrait from the Toilet Stories exhibition of Theresia Ukwitegetse, 80, a widow from Rwanda whose new home and toilet is a source of great pride to her. Yvonne’s portrait also features in the online gallery.

My toilet obsession

My travels around the world since have taken me to many countries and given me many toilet experiences, from the most basic to the super modern and stylish. A friend gently pointed out to me some time in the 1980s that I am a little obsessed with toilets. And she was correct. 

A friend gently pointed out to me some time in the 1980s that I am a little obsessed with toilets. And she was correct.

Agnes Muhishire and her granddaughter, Diane. When Agnes was a child, only around one in ten families had a toilet in Gitwa. “Everyone used to go anywhere and it caused flies to go on our vegetables. Diseases would attack the families. At one point, u ...
WaterAid/ People's Postcode Lottery/ Elena Heatherwick
From Toilet Stories: Agnes and her granddaughter. "Everyone used to go anywhere and it caused flies to go on our vegetables. Diseases would spread amongst families. At one point, up to five children were dying a month.”

The disparity of our toilet experiences

I recall a couple of particularly notable experiences, one of which involved sharing a long wooden trough with several other women in Ghana. The women, dressed in stunning colourful dresses, did their business deftly and without fuss, whilst I mostly peed over my feet before giving up in despair.

Then there was perhaps my most surreal experience of them all: finding myself attempting to use a conventional toilet which turned out not to be plumbed in. It had just been placed on the floor of a small outhouse.   

The notion that everyone should have decent toilets inspired myself and a girlfriend to support a toilet-building project for a school in Ghana back in 1998. We raised money here in the UK and the funds were greatly boosted by my daughter and writer Zadie Smith whose winning of the Commonwealth Prize for her first novel, White Teeth, coincided with us trying get our project off the ground. Zadie donated her entire £3,000 win to our efforts.   

I think I can say that here in the UK, we mostly love our toilets, and I hope people reading this blog and visiting the new online exhibition will help us keep demanding this human right for everyone, everywhere by sharing what they find. They might even add their own experience. 

My decision to lend my support to WaterAid’s raising of awareness of the value of toilets for all and the idea of getting all of us talking about this was a no-brainer. Now I am appealing to you to join us in sharing your toilet stories and breaking the taboo around these conversations. And let’s keep talking until everyone has a safe, private space of their own. 

WaterAid’s new online exhibition, Toilet Stories – supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery – marks UN World Toilet Day on 19 November. 

Pay a visit, so to speak!