19 November 2020

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WaterAid’s new online exhibition, Toilet Stories, has launched this week to mark UN World Toilet Day (19 November). It explores the lives of those who are deeply affected by a lack of decent toilets – 1 in 4 people globally - and those whose lives have been transformed by them.

Toilet Stories reveals intimate portraits and stories from Rwanda and Madagascar. Over a period of 18 months, photographer Elena Heatherwick and freelance journalist Sally Williams travelled to remote communities in Rwanda and Madagascar for a special project in partnership with WaterAid and supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The gallery delivers a very human story of how lives are affected by their ownership of a toilet.

Living without a toilet endangers the health and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest communities. A staggering 2 billion people around the world do not have access to even a basic, private toilet. In Madagascar, 90% of the population – more than 22 million people – do not have a decent toilet, and a third of Rwandans – 4 million people - are in the same dire situation.

However, things have changed in Ambatoantrano, a remote village in the central highlands of Madagascar, where nearly all households now have their own toilet. The turning point was when WaterAid helped bring clean water to the community, inspiring them to make further changes to improve their lives. Likewise, almost everyone in the village of Gitwa, in the mountains of southern Rwanda, now has a toilet.

To highlight the importance of the toilet, and equipped with nothing more than a camera, a notepad, and a white, waxed backdrop sheet, Elena and Sally set out to capture images of the hand-built structures and their proud owners. The humble toilet is a live-saving addition to any home. It also brings great joy and even status. Behind every toilet, there’s a story.

Domitria Nyirasoni lives alone in Gitwa. The community came together to renovate her home and told her “You need a toilet”. She bought the mud bricks; her neighbours dug the hole and donated wood for the floor and metal sheeting for the roof. Her toilet now stands by her vegetable patch.

Talking about her toilet, Domitria, 54, said:

“It’s really good. I take care of it by keeping it clean. Defecating in open spaces is ugly.”

Nearby lives Theresia Ukwitegetse, a widow who is 80 years old. She has three children – she also had a boy and three girls, but they all died when they were babies. At last things have improved for Theresia, who now has a newly-constructed toilet as well as a new home, built with help from her community. She has a lot of pride in her new toilet, complete with a corrugated iron roof that gleams in the sun. Her new toilet complements her new home and gives her peace of mind.

Theresia said:

"When you die, people gather in your home. They walk around you, and one by one, they say goodbye. Dying in a place that you like, means a lot."

Meanwhile, in Ambatoantrano in Madagascar lives Noely Rasoaniradana, 42, a farmer who is divorced from her husband, but one of her five daughters and grandson live nearby. Her toilet is covered by a squash vine that she planted.

When asked about her toilet, Noely said:

“I don’t have enough money to make it smart but, to me, the most important thing the toilet represents is health.”

In the same village, Elena and Sally met Marie-Pierrette Fanjanirina, who has suffered much loss though three miscarriages. She is now trying to control other things in her life, like her home environment. Her toilet, in particular, offers an opportunity for her to express herself, and every aspect is considered carefully.

Marie-Pierrette, 38, said:

“I am most proud of its shape, it’s quite small. I wash and clean it every day, I try to do my best.”

In visiting the online exhibition, Toilet Stories viewers can see photographer Elena Heatherwick’s sensitive style of photography, beautifully capturing the individuals within.

Explaining the concept of Toilet Stories and the use of the backdrop, Elena said:

“When a family gets a decent toilet for the first time, it’s not just a toilet to them, it’s something to celebrate because it represents the chance of having a better, healthier life.
“By isolating the structures from their surroundings, we hoped to showcase their designs, to make people look differently at an everyday object and to celebrate the heroes pushing for better sanitation across the world.”

Toilet Stories has been made possible with support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Since 2013, they have raised more than £15m to support WaterAid’s work bringing clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to communities all around the world.

Tim Wainwright, WaterAid CEO, said:

“WaterAid is excited to be launching our new exhibition, giving toilets the attention they deserve. The world’s sanitation crisis is trapping billions of people in poverty. Decent toilets, together with clean water and good hygiene, are essential for people to live healthy, productive and dignified lives.
“We are so grateful for the support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who are helping us deliver these essential services to communities across the world today – and we won’t stop campaigning for change until everyone, everywhere has the clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene they need to stay healthy for good.”

Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said:

“Sanitation is a universal human right. But for many communities around the world, physical and affordable access to sanitation that is safe, hygienic and secure is not a reality. Thanks to the support of players, we’ve seen the incredible impact investing in clean water and decent toilets can have for communities, schools and health centres. We’re delighted to be working with WaterAid on the Toilet Stories exhibition, keeping that conversation going, shining a light on this issue and reminding us all how the humble toilet keeps us safe and well.”

Visit the online exhibition at from 16 November 2020.