Rose George has a growing history of covering off-beat topics, such as
writing about Saddam Hussein's birthday party and exploring the Alternative
World Cup. Tackling the topic of human bodily waste is quite risky, and while
George admits to being on the receiving end of many jokes, she effectively
presents the topic as a serious public health issue supported by a riveting
barrage of information.
At one end of the waste disposal spectrum are the luxurious Washlet toilets she finds throughout Japan - the bottom of the line model has a built-in bidet system, a heated seat, and a control panel; while higher-end products monitor blood pressure and play music. Since 1980, TOTO, an esteemed Japanese toilet manufacturer, has sold 20 million Washlets to Japan's population of 160 million. So commonplace in Japan are these toilets that census figures have revealed more Japanese households owning a Washlet than possessing a computer.
In diametric opposition to this pristine scenario is the rampant open defecation which is practiced throughout much of India. According to the author, 200,000 tons (155,000 truckloads) of human feces are left untreated in India every day. Men, women and children squat on their haunches to defecate beside train tracks, outside urban public toilets, and on roads outside villages, resulting in the spread of worms, salmonella, cholera, giardia, and many more infections.
Throughout her travels the author interviews many interesting individuals who are devoted to the cause of sanitation in areas such as these. One such is Joe Madiath, who runs Gram Vikas (Village Development). Gram Vikas created a cycle of success in the village of Samiapalli by targeting the women. In return for the residents agreeing to build bathrooms up to roof level for privacy (Madiath's slogan is "building dignity through toilets") he promised to bring water to the village so that the women would no longer have to laboriously fetch water from faraway pumps. In turn, the building of latrines sparked the construction of stronger cyclone-proof homes, the beginning of women working outside the home, and higher attendance rates of healthier children at school. Samiapalli's success has now been repeated in over 100 villages across the Indian state of Orissa. Through this example and others, the author convincingly argues that improved sanitation with toilets affects a society in many unimagined positive ways.
Anthropologists should be having a field day with bathrooms, according to the author. "A place where all sorts of human needs and habits intersect: fear, disgust, conversation, grooming, sex." In short, she boldly maintains, "To be uninterested in the public toilet is to be uninterested in life." After following the author's investigative escapades of the London sewers and checking out toilets connected to biogas digesters in China, readers will be left wondering about hygiene in other parts of the world and the resulting societal effects. What is happening with human bodily excrement in Egypt? In Venezuela? The topic becomes increasingly relevant the smaller our global world becomes, and here's hoping that Rose George keeps it right in front of us.
This review was originally published in November 2008, and has been updated for the July 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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