Lessons on humility and hygiene
Growing up in a household with two sisters, no brothers and a mother who was committed to raising ladies, potty talk was not encouraged.
We made harmless jokes here and there (and were promptly scolded), but for the majority of my life I viewed the topic as embarrassing and even avoided letting others know that I had to go to the bathroom. I peed as quietly as I could in public stalls because somehow making a sound seemed shameful and I never went ‘number two’ in public. However, after almost eight years of living mostly in Asia, my view on potty talk has changed; not because I’ve become vulgar, but because I’ve realized the reality and the humanity of the subject.
For many in the west, it’s not necessary to discuss what comes out of us because things like diarrhea and dangerous amoebas are not a reality. In other parts of the world though the texture, consistency, volume and frequency of bowel movements can be indicative of life or death issues. I’ve seen too many short-term volunteers or first-time oversea travellers hesitate to share that they have been struck with what we labeled the ‘welcome to Asia’. This shame could lead to them collapsing after several days of watery bowel movements due to dehydration – which can occur even when you’re drinking water.
Although one friend claimed she never was ‘welcomed to Asia’, the rest of the team was at some point, normally when you least expected it (like after a nice dinner out), or when you least wanted it (like on your first bus ride out of the city, which just so happened to be the start of 24 hours on a bus that refused to pull over for you to find a toilet after the second time). Something I learnt very early on was to get over my pride of not sharing about being sick. I had no idea that it had partly been a pride issue to not talk about the reality of going to the bathroom and on that first trek I was humbled. All of my very Godly prayers to not get sick, to not have to ask for help to find a toilet, to not have others know that I was suffering from diarrhea, to be able to find a toilet and to be able to find a toilet in time were not answered. But through those very humbling hours, as my friends helped me find toilets, rubbed my back as I vomited out the window of the moving bus and guarded the side of the road where I squatted to relieve myself so that there was some semblance of privacy, I realized that God was providing in His own way. He gave me loving and non-judgmental friends who helped me come to terms with my embarrassment and handed me the toilet paper and Imodium.
Another reality in many places across the world is the absence of toilets; mostly due to a lack of education. People in developing countries, both adults and children, never learn about germs, bacteria, the spread of diseases through feces, possible contamination of drinking water and many other “basic” lessons taught elsewhere. I’ve seen children around the world pick something up off the ground and pop it into their mouth within eye-sight of their parents; the difference is in how the parents respond. With lightening-like reflexes parents from developed countries remove said mysterious item from their child’s mouth and give some sort of explanation or scolding. Elsewhere I’ve witnessed with horror as the parents noted but did not respond to the apparent danger their child was in. Yes, clearly that rusty pole on the side of the dusty road that I’ve seen at least ten strangers grab ahold of to hoist themselves up onto the unusually high sidewalk is safe for your child to be licking like a lollypop. Maybe it was the sweaty hands of all of the strangers which gave the metal it’s flavour appeal to the five year-old. While my stomach churned at the sight, and I wanted to intervene and explain the risks or scold the child and parent, I realized that it just reflected a total lack of awareness on the subject of germs.
The same goes for the building of toilets. I visited a village once where my host walked me through the town and pointed out four posts and a hole beside each house, and told me that an NGO had come into the village and built simple toilets made of bamboo posts, metal siding and a ceramic squatty-potty built over a hole in the ground. Less than a year later, every family had felt forced to sell off the building supplies for a small amount of money because they owned no land, had unreliable jobs and had no option but to sell the only things of value they had. While the NGO had clearly meant to improve the lives of the villagers, the staff failed to educate them properly as to why these gifts could prevent the spread of disease and give their children a higher chance of living past infancy.
I absolutely believe that one of the lessons believers need to share in undeveloped countries is on basic hygiene, the reality of germs, and how to prevent child mortality because these lessons give life. Literally, they save the lives of children who would otherwise die of things like fever, diarrhea and worms to name a few. I am also convinced that those fortunate enough to live in countries that provide ample opportunities to learn about these topics need to get over our disgust and embarrassment of the topic. While we may not all suffer from the same bouts of embarrassing bowel movements, we are all human. How can we help reach out to the poor and needy if we treat their lives as if they were untouchable? How can we bring life in places where death is so prevalent if we won’t live in these challenging places and share in their discomfort of day-to-day life? How can we love others if we continue to judge their lives as below ours? As Christians we are called to touch the lives of others, to give generously and to love those who the rest of the world overlooks.