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Volunteer Recap: A Summer With Her Mind On The Toilet

Dionna Fry, a 2014 graduate from Emory University, spent last summer in Ethiopia devoting herself to toiletry. For six weeks, she worked with nonprofit organization Catholic Relief Services, going door to door to interview village leaders and families in different communities about how they liked Arborloos, low-cost and ecologically-friendly pit latrines with a concrete slab to squat over. The waste falls into the pit.

Introduced over the past 10 years in Ethiopia, the latrines protect families from diseases spread by open defecation and also turn human waste into an agricultural resource — the food to feed a plant tree that could eventually becomes a source of food and income for the family.

She says families, for most part liked it, and have grown trees that are taller than people.

Fry's mind was on the toilet for most of the trip, but here's a peek at her overall experience.

Did you try the toilet? What was it like?

All the Arborloos I used provided privacy [with lightweight walls] and had little odor. Users apply a mix of ash and soil to the pit after use. This decreases odor and the prevalence of flies.

Local habit you liked?

In Ethiopia they tear off a piece of injera [a spongy flatbread], wrap it around some food on the plate, mush it together and feed it to somebody. It's a sign of respect and love, and the larger the piece the stronger the bond.

Culture clash?

The hand that you clean yourself with after defecation, in many cultures, is the left hand, and so that's considered the dirty hand. The thing is I'm left-handed, and you're supposed to eat with your right hand. Sometimes I would forget and eat with my left hand, and I would think, "Oh shoot, people are going to think I'm gross."

Animal encounter?

About 30 to 40 Gelada baboons, whole families with babies, were sitting on the road just hanging out, which caused a huge traffic jam.

Best thing you brought from home?

Six books (including Pride and Prejudice) and I read them all at least twice. Sometimes we didn't have electricity, and there's a lot of free time in the evening for reading – more than I'm used to.

What you wished you'd brought

Umbrella and waterproof boots. We were there during the rainy season, and it would rain so hard every day, and it would hail.

Epiphany

At a restaurant they might not have running water so you would wash your hands in a bucket and you would just use a tiny bit. And then I came back to the U.S., and my mom had the tap on for two minutes, and I was just like, "Oh my gosh!"

Tweet of advice to a newbie:

If you're respectful and open to those you meet, you'll make good friends, end up drinking A LOT of coffee and eat from another's hand.

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