A stroll through a public toilet
Chennai (India), February 12th 2012 

A small child squats next to the street. He doesn’t wear any pants and this is convenient, at this moment. This little boy knows exactly what he has to do, when he feels it is time to do number two: stop with whatever you are doing, squat and let it go. It doesn’t matter if this is in front of your house or behind some bushes; Chennai’s slums are one big public toilet. Running water and sanitary facilities are non-existent and because there are so many people living on such a small area, there aren’t many alternatives. Probably, this is why poverty in cities seems much more cutting than poverty in rural areas. When you live in the countryside you can always find a peaceful place to go to the toilet. Here, adults are squatting next to the railway while children are doing it next to the street.

On a late afternoon, we are walking through a small slum. As ever, we are surprises of the immense friendliness and warmth of the dwellers. Mothers and children gather around us to let their picture been taken. The mothers want to be sure that their child isn’t forgotten. For an outsider, this is seems strange. You could expect that they would see us as intruders who just want to gaze at their poverty. However, it appears that those people aren’t just slum-dwellers, but just normal mothers who are proud of their children. When somebody makes a nice picture of their child to show it in a faraway country, they like it. When they can see that picture on the LCD-screen of our camera, they love it. We talk, we laugh and there is a lively atmosphere.

A young boy washes himself in one of Chennai's slums

One of the mothers asks me to come to her little house, because there is a small baby lying in the shade. As I walk along with her, I am not paying enough attention to the ground and before I know it, I am standing in a turd. I didn’t realize it at first, but the mother sees it immediately and points at my shoe. While I try to remove the light-brown substance, help is underway. Mum and her children get some water at the water pump, to scoop it over my shoe. A small girl illustrates with her little bare feet, how I should rub against a rock to get the job done. It’s moving to see how they bend over backwards to help fixing such a minor problem. God knows how many times they have stood in the shit. When living in a public toilet, these are the small irritations in life. In the Netherlands, people are walking behind their dogs with little scoops and plastic bags to clean up after their dogs did their droppings, but in this place, human faeces are lying on the streets.

Ivonne shows the children the movie she made

When the bystanders declare that my shoe is clean again, we are allowed to leave. Again, we have experienced that people who have had little contact with foreigners are the ones who will give you the warmest of welcomes. Poor people see us as a free form of entertainment, while we are offered a glimpse into their world. We are continuing our stroll, but from now on we will mind our step a bit better.

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