The Shit Scoopers

*Warning: Contains some graphic description that may churn the stomach.

One day, true story, the toilets in the senior dorm broke. This was in one of the high schools I went to, a school that turned out to be a perfect fit for my personality and mental disposition.

The school had no fence and no prefects, a stark difference from my first high school that had a reinforced triple fence, tall gate, security guard and an angry squad of prefects who belched out cruel punishments at every turn. This no-fence-no-prefects school had the most beautiful view of fog cascading down the hills every morning right in front of our classroom. I thrived there.

Until one day shit literally hit the floor. The decades-old toilets in our dorm blocked and overflowed. The stench was unbearable. The Headmistress decided rather than overhaul the backed-up sewage system, they would have the students scoop the shit every day.

There was a revolt, and girls went bang-bang on their desks. The administration came down hard and told us whoever does not comply with the shit-scooping fix will be suspended. That did it. Everyone went back to class and agreed to become shit-scoopers. It was the worst thing in any student’s life in Kenya, next to failing national exams, to be sent away from school for bad behavior. The whole village will forever cast an eye of judgement against you, your mother, and your unborn children. So girls got to scooping shit.

Except two of us. Maureen and I stood our ground. We were summoned for interrogation and suspension. Facing the Headmistress, Sister Claudia, in her office gave me an adrenaline high. I spoke with all the dare God ever gave me and said how wrong it was that the school is not fixing the toilets. I don’t know what Maureen said and we never discussed it, but all I know was that we were not suspended, and the school agreed to fix the toilets “very soon.”

Between then and “very soon”, girls still had to take turns to clean the overflow of slimy goo, lumpy feculence, greenish-yellowish stench and rivulets of urine. Has it disgusted you enough? To clean it, they had to look at it, breath it, some would throw up in it in the process, and still scoop it all up with buckets and without gloves. This happened. The toilets could not be shut down because there was nowhere else to go to the bathroom at night. You cannot escape the system.

Two things happened: One, the girls in that dorm honored the two of us rebels and gave us special beds next to the front door and farthest from the toilets. These were singles, not bunk beds. Two, the same girls exempted us from cleaning the overflowing feces. I suppose they felt if we were ready to take the suspension bullet for them, we were good for the honor. A sisterhood of young girls, not yet adults, gave me recognition that’s lasted me a lifetime.

But what I’ll never forget was the humor with which one girl did her shit-scooping duty. She laughed and made rib-cracking jokes as she carried that bucket all the way to a pit outside. It was her way of getting through it. A very Kenyan way.

Kenyans laugh too soon. We laugh through shit we’ve been forced to carry. We caricature the stench with rib-cracking memes that we share widely. We get sick from handling buckets of shitty maggots wiggling through every shitty situation. The middle-class carry the shit-buckets too– loads of debt, expectations, keeping up appearances and getting robbed.

We wait for the next toilet-blockage so we can accept it and make new jokes all over again, which is just about every other day. Kenyans ease the tension too soon, and the value of tension gets lost. Tension creates energy, and energy diverted into a just cause gets things done.

But we surrender tension too soon because we think it wrong to show anger. We’re embarrassed by the sight of those who express that tension – the activists – and we call them losers. Yet they are the ones who force systems to change. Carrying shit-buckets becomes normal for those who choose a civilized don’t-get-angry response to tension.

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