Blog # 3 (17 March 2017)

Diversity:  When nature calls….

I would like to take up again the issue of diversity – this time with regard to a very personal issue: Going to the toilet – across cultures - is done in very different ways.

The idea developed as for a foreigner travelling through South-America there is an unusual surprise: At every toilet you will see a sign which requests people not to through toilet paper in the toilet but – instead - in a separate basket. As a consequence every toilet welcomes you with a basket full of filthy toilet paper. Doing some research for the reasons of this custom the answers frequently are the danger of clotting the pipes or poor pluming. Not surprisingly in the internet you will find a broad discussion whether this danger indeed exists as North-America and Europe do not face this problem.


On a world-wide scale toilets come in different types: As a hole in the floor or equipped with something quite similar to a chair to sit on. In Islam it is required that a toilet is built in a way that it neither faces towards Mecca, nor faces directly away from it. A 90° orientation is required.

People relieve themselves in different positions: sitting, squatting, standing (laying is not really an option, except one is sick). In some cultures, people use toilet paper for cleaning, in other water. Islam is particular strict and requires washing with the left hand (which is therefore considered the un-clean hand). Islam further requires that a person squats while urinating, something that seems quite odd for European men as this is only applied by women.

When I lived in southern-Tajikistan in 1998 I found in rural village toilets baskets with mud and gravel to be used for cleaning. While this might have had economic reasons, people told me about the resentments of the Tajik Muslim population when decades ago first Russians, later Soviets, tried to introduce the use of paper for the toilet as paper by Tajiks was considered holy. Finally, a compromise was found that it would be appropriate to use paper where Cyrillic script was printed/written on while paper with Arabic script (which was the script used in Tajikistan until the establishment of the Soviet Union) should be spared.

There might be advantages or disadvantages of the one or the other approach from a health or hygienic point of view. However, that is not the point here. My message is that there is a vast diversity re what to do and how to do “when nature calls” and that everybody feels only comfortable with the particular process (and only with this) he or she was brought up.

Happy to get some feedback from you from across the cultures.

P.S. In the meanwhile I was told another reason for not throwing toilet paper in the toilet: People informed me that allegedly some use septic tanks which contain the excrements but release the water. Toilet paper would block this by clotting the walls or leaks.

P.P.S. I got quite q lively feedback to the last blog and would like to share two responses:

  • One colleague wrote me: “I was working with the World Bank in India, once, with the goal of "getting people to use toilets".  The Government had put toilets all around the country so that (technically) everyone lived close enough to a (public) toilet to actually use it.  But they found that people were still doing their business in fields and streams - and using the toilets as places to make fires and cook their food!  One of the (many) reasons why they didn't use them was because no one wanted to clean them.” However, some other villages used them and even were inventive enough to get worms to turn the poo into fertilizer.
  • Another colleague warned: “For all of you using the "hole in the ground": check your pockets FIRST!" (where a mobile was 'lost' this way in Pokhara, Nepal, at 'Michael's Cafe', with ALL inportant tel numbers...”