A Health Problem in North African Schools and Society?

Typical American school restroom for primary-school girls

Typical American school restroom for primary-school girls

As an American teacher living in North Africa, I was complaining to a public-school teacher friend in the same country about my perception of lack of adequate toilet facilities for girls in the international school where I taught previously.

I said that we only had had only four girls’ toilet stalls for four classes of girls.  Each elementary-school class had about 30 children, and about half of those were girls, so we had four toilets for about 60 girls.

The problem was that for several months, two of those toilets WEREN’T WORKING.  For more than two months, ONLY ONE TOILET WAS WORKING.  (For reference, current American law requires that for students over five years old, one toilet needs to be provided for every 20 pupils.)

My friend began to laugh, and told me that in his small-town school of 1600 students (approximately 1,000 boys and 600 girls), there were only three toilets for girls, and three toilets for boys!

No wonder my own school didn’t view getting the toilets repaired quickly as a problem in need of urgent remedy!

Modern school bathrooms in the United Kingdom (England)

Lurking in the background is a behavior assumption which is still unclear to me.  I have been told by some in North Africa that it’s “not polite” to use the restroom (toilet) anywhere other than one’s own home (or relatives’ home).  Yet when I asked other people, they haven’t heard of any such “rule.”

This is the type of toilet found in most schools (public and private), but as you can imagine, they are not nearly this clean.

Many public toilet facilities are unclean, but the cleanliness issue is not the subject of this post.  The AVAILABILITY of toilets, and whether or not it is socially acceptable to use them, is the topic.

When I go out with my North African husband, and we are away from home for several hours, I think it’s normal to need to find a restroom.  But my husband gets very upset and complains that “other people don’t need to use the bathroom” and that I “must be drinking too much water” or that it’s “embarrassing” for HIM if I need to find a restroom!  I wondered if this is normal, or just my husband?

When I mentioned to a North African woman friend that my husband didn’t want to take me to a musical event in the evening which he goes to regularly, and I mentioned that the reason he gave was that I said I would certainly need a bathroom during the course of the evening (8-10-hour event), she immediately agreed, “Oh, yes, that would be a big problem!”

The type of evening musical event which my husband and friend indicated would be “a problem” to take me to (if I should need a bathroom).

Doctors in North Africa have told me often over the years that people here don’t drink enough water.  On the other hand, both men and women over the years have told me, “Yes, it’s true all the doctors say to drink more water, but I don’t do it because then I would need to go to the bathroom!”

At this large music festival in Morocco, I wonder what all these people are doing about finding a restroom–are they all “waiting all day, until they get home?”

My North African husband drinks very little water (he tells me he drinks about half a glass once a week).  He does drink Coke, juices, coffee, and milk, but not much (by the standard of drinking one-and-a-half liters of liquid a day–and doctors recommend at least a liter of that be water, or four glasses a day–in America, we are told to drink eight glasses of water a day).

All of the above is similar to a problem I once experienced with a Greek lady in America, where my best friend was Greek.  My friend’s grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and I offered to take the grandmother out for an afternoon in order to give his mother a break from her care-taking duties.  During the afternoon we went to a movie, and had been gone from home for about three hours.  In the middle of the movie, the grandmother got up and walked out.  I assumed she must need the restroom (she was losing her ability to communicate in English), so I took her there.  But she did NOT need it.

Later, when we got home, my friend’s mother said that in her entire life, she had NEVER seen her mother use a public restroom, that in fact, her mother (who came from Greece at the age of 18) could “hold it all day.”  Being born in America herself, she said she could not figure out how her mother could do that.  (Like North Africans, she probably was purposely not drinking any water.)

Women’s public restroom in American movie theater

So now that I live in North Africa, I wonder if this could be a Mediterranean-wide idea.  Is it that WOMEN shouldn’t use a restroom in a public place, or is it that NO ONE should use a restroom in a public place?  Is this why schools seem to think many restroom stalls aren’t necessary for children?

In most schools here, students go to school for four hours, then go home for lunch, and then come back for an additional four hours.  However, at the schools in the countryside, students are often walking 6-7 kilometers to school (4 miles) each direction, and certainly would not be walking “home” for lunch.  What are they supposed to do?

At our international school we kept foreign hours from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm, but it was still a half-hour drive for most people to-and-from school.  Believe me, it took a lot of time (when we should have been teaching) to get all the girls through the restroom when there was only one working toilet.

I hope I will have some feedback on this issue from men and women in North Africa and the Mediterranean areas, as well as from anyone experiencing any similar problems in their schools or otherwise!

–Lynne Diligent

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7 Responses to “A Health Problem in North African Schools and Society?”

  1. MM Says:

    I am not sure about schools, but I have some friends from the Middle East countries, who do not use public toilets. I do not know what is the main reason, but I guess they think they are not clean enough. So I guess it must be something traditional. Now, thinking of that, another reason could be the accessibility of bidet (an ability to use soap and water rather than toilet paper) – for many muslims this is vital.

  2. Judy Says:

    I encountered this also in Azerbaijan. I always said to my husband that the locals must have bladders of steel, as they never need to “go.” They seemed to drink much less volume than we do, and mainly tea rather than water. I assumed this was due to the fact that tap water is not safe to drink and needs to be boiled. Perhaps you are right though and any reference to the need to use a bathroom is considered shameful. I will ask my good Azeri friend next time we Skype and let you know.

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Thanks, Judy! I’d be very interested to know what your Azeri friend has to say about this. One other thing I didn’t mention in my post was that when I was pregnant here 20 years ago, my North African mother-in-law was disturbed if we were out and I had to find a restroom. There were plenty of cafes around, but she wouldn’t let me go into them. My daughter later told me that my mother-in-law was raised by her mother that “the only women who go into cafes are prostitutes.” My husband still has this idea, even though times are changing. He thinks maybe women can go into cafes in some larger cities, as long as they are with a group of people, but not in our large city! When I first moved here, if a foreign woman married to an local went to a cafe, people from all over town would rush to tell her husband, “I saw your wife in a cafe! Did you know that!!!” and the man would either have to tell them he knew it, or be embarrassed and humiliated. My husband also has claimed for many years that one cannot go to a cafe (it would be ok to go to a very expensive cafe, or a hotel cafe) with his wife because “if anyone makes a critical comment about the wife, the man has to get up and fight them.” My daughter says that this is mostly because at typical cafes very low-class people hang out, and their main occupation is commenting to each other on all the women who walk by or who are around. So if someone makes a critical comment about your wife or family member and you (as a man) are present, you have to get up and defend them.

      • Judy Says:

        Lynne, are attitudes changing among the younger generation, with increased western influence?

      • Lynne Diligent Says:

        I’m not sure about change on this particular issue as it’s not something I discuss with many people! However, on general issues, I think the younger generation is looking for job meritocracy and equality of everyone under the law (which is what the Arab Spring is all about), while at the same time, many people are drawn to Islamic parties hoping for more justice and charity (in fact, some of the Islamic parties are called “Justice and Charity”).

  3. Emmanuelle Payot Karpathakis Says:

    Dear Lynne,
    I live in Rhodes, Greece. When we moved here 3 years ago, coming from Geneva, Switzerland, one of my biggest cultural shock were the bathrooms at school! Four, what we call “turkish” toilet (as in Tunisia and North Africa, like in the picture), dirty, smelling horrible. Four toilets, for 140 boys and girls (no separation, in the primary school, children are up to 12 years old!).
    In the pre school, two of the same toilet.
    My two eldest girls do not go to the toilets. They run to our bathroom coming from school, at 3pm! The little one refused to go during 4 months, pipi in her pants and I almost took her out of school. She finally got used to the smelling. At four years old, she had to learn how to use the turkish toilet. Of course, no small kids can flush the toilet.
    Even if a cleaning lady cleans everyday, the smell is terrible. Pipes are old. The school is 100 years old, and I guess the toilets too. This is how it is here in a village in Rhodes. And it is not going to be fixed. (In the nursery tough, small toilets for the children are great). Best Regards,

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Thanks for sharing, Emmanuelle. Too bad we can’t see what conversations the Greek children have in their homes with their own mothers! I really feel for your children.

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