Monrovia — "The hanging latrines" of West Point are not one of Liberia's most celebrated beauty spots. But this modest collection of elevated toilets, erected on the banks of the Mesurado River, has proved popular with residents.
A visit costs five Liberian dollars, around eight cents, the price doubling if you also want to take a bath with specially heated water from a local well.
The local community, backed by the city authorities, is trying to provide a minimum of hygiene. There is now meant to be weekly house-to-house refuse collection scheme in this part of Monrovia, while the city's mayor, Mary Broh, has become a stern advocate of municipal cleaning and personal hygiene, signaling her intention to transform the urban landscape.
A notice-board next to the river, put up by the Monrovia City Corporation warns against dumping rubbish. But the riverbank is littered with plastic bags and other debris, while visitors are urged to tread carefully, watching out for feces left by those who still defecate outside the designated latrine area.
"If someone comes in and says: "I want to squat, then we have no choice," explains Henry Richards, a local resident and strong champion of hanging latrines. "Looking at the poverty rate here, they are going to squat."
Liberia on Monday was among many countries around the world marking World Toilet Day. Only 17 percent of Liberia's 3.9 million people have access to adequate sanitation, according to the international non-governmental organization WaterAid.
West Point is often described as one of Monrovia's poorest areas, heavily overcrowded, dangerously low on basic amenities, with an unenviable reputation for crime and violence. But acting Town Commissioner William Weah says the district's negative image is sometimes exaggerated. "The West Point of a few years ago is not the West Point of now," Weah argues, pointing out that many of the current population of over 60,000 found refuge here as they fled the civil war.
Francis Roberts, a longtime West Point resident, runs a shoe-mending business. He is also the main driving force behind the newly formed World Youth for Humanity, a fledgling welfare organisation hoping it can draw attention and funds to West Point's problems, getting extra meals to the elderly, lobbying for better health care, campaigning against malaria and lobbying for free latrines. "That is what we are running after now," says Roberts, looking on with disapproval as children defecate discreetly on the beach.
Richards shows off his home neighbourhood with a mixture of pride and shame. This is where the Mesurado meets the Atlantic. On a Sunday afternoon, fishermen clean their boats and prepare their nets for the next day's catch. The bigger craft belong to the Ghanaian Fante community, long-established in Monrovia. Others are paddled by the Kru people from Liberia's southeast. Stretches of beach and waste ground have been converted into scratch football pitches and there are half a dozen games being played, featuring young boys and adults.
Elsewhere, women wash clothes or work on each other's hair, while men play draughts in the shade. The overnight rain has left huge puddles of grey, brackish water, often coming right up to the doorsteps of the cramped houses and compounds, blocking the thoroughfares. Some residents try to find a way across using plastic bags or stones; others take off their shoes and flip-flops and simply walk through.
The New Road, which runs from the main road to the waterfront, is lined with shops and businesses, selling everything from groceries to automobile spare parts. There are power lines overhead, but only those with access to generators have access to current.
As in other parts of Monrovia, there is virtually no running water, just a few wells, some in better condition than others. Pumps are in short supply. As elsewhere in the city, water vendors are out in force, mainly young men steering their mowas, unwieldy, two-wheel, metal contraptions crammed with jerry cans. A one-gallon jerry can will normally cost between 30 and 40 Liberian dollars, or 40 to 60 U.S. cents, the price normally going down in the rainy season, which runs from April to October.
Getting water is a task normally assigned to women and children. "This water business is complicated," says Cecelia Roberts, 50, a mother-of five children, sharing a small house just off New Road, West Point's main thoroughfare. If the mowas are not close by, there is a long round trip across the bridge to buy from vendors in areas like Vai Town.
Cecelia splits a daily five-gallon supply with a neighbour, who also has five children, trying to make sure there is enough for cooking and washing, with some left for drinking. She adds sodium chlorite solution to some of her supply, but is wary of local well water.
"From the toilet side, something can easily go in the well, then we will drink it or bathe with it and your whole body will itch," she says.
"Sometimes the water is really salty. Every month you have children drying from runny stomach." She regularly buys oral rehydration salts for the children to ward off stomach problems.
Married to a retired soldier, Cecelia supplements her husband's pension by working as a beach-cleaner, part of a team employed by the Liberia Maritime Authority (LiMA) under a "Reclaiming Liberia's Beaches and Waterways Project" launched in 2009. While described, somewhat ambitiously, by the LiMA as "a partial realization of the president of liberia's vision for the country to be transformed from a "Nation with a leading Maritime Program to a Martime Nation", Cecelia's early morning work is mainly about removing waste and feces from the nearby beaches, and she has few illusions.
"Eight o'clock sharp, we are on the beach and we are finished by eleven, but when you go on the beach the next day it's not clean," she says.
"People have got nowhere to put dirt, nowhere to use the toilet."
The UN's Millennium Development Goals Report, issued in 2010, described open defecation as "an affront to human dignity", noting its lethal consequences for children vulnerable to "diarrhoeal diseases and the stunting and undernutrion that tend to follow".
But while public health campaigns in Liberia have targeted the practice for years, there is a long way to go. In principle, defecating on a beach near West Point can result in a visit to the police station and a spot fine. But Commissoner Weah is philosophical.
"If people should not use the beach, you should create an alternative for them," he concedes. But the alternatives, to date, are patently inadequate.