“The Queen of Toilet”
Marakie Tesfaye is the CEO, leader, founder of the Jegnit Ethiopia Movement who is a self-described “The Queen of Toilet”. The host of Gwadegna TV on KANA is the founder of Jegnit, a movement working to eliminate obstacles women and girls in Ethiopia face. Here she reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on her activism, her inspiration, on why she thinks toilets are essential to Ethiopia and her long-term vision on making them accessible to more people.
The Reporter: Tell me about Jegnit and tell me about yourself?
Marakie Tesfaye: We work to empower and change the narratives for women and girls in Ethiopia and run interference so women and girls can succeed in life. Jegnit meaning ‘heroine’ in Amharic, is a term I coined so we could engrain it in young girls that it is possible for them to surpass expectations and norms and be heroines.
After founding Jegnit Ethiopia, I have worked with girls in Ethiopia as menstrual hygiene management as my main area of focus. While working with different organisations on school aged kids, I was able to see that young girls are met with hurdles that hinder them from going forth in life such as staying in school. One of the major causes of that were sanitation problems.
I have worked with different partners to raise awareness and destigmatize and alter the erroneous perception of menstrual health, and continue to advocate removing unnecessary taxation imposed on sanitary products as luxury items. As Jegnit, we have mobilised to raise awareness and donations of sanitary products for schools nationwide. I have had the pleasure of touring different schools with celebrities and having a discourse with young girls about hygiene and menstrual health. It was then that I came to realise that scarcity of sanitary products was just the tip of the iceberg for these young girls. I was able to see that the lack of safe toilets was another stumble block for young girls and people with disabilities in Ethiopia. With that our project was able to branch out to address this issue; toilet availability and accessibility.
I note toilets are often a luxury much of the population in Ethiopia?
Lack of availability of toilets have been a tremendous problem in Ethiopia for a while now to the point where we have embraced a faux pas such as open defecation and public urination as a community. The inaccessibility and unattainability of toilets continue to affect the community and country. Even though WASH infrastructure and accessibility have shown a slight change in the past few years, we are still nowhere near we need to be. Incorrect bathroom behaviour, unimproved latrines, open defecation and inadequate facilities continue to take a toll on our community and country and it is time they are addressed.
In our country, people find it easier to urinate openly on the streets than look for a toilet in their area. Since community public toilets are there but not accessible or mostly unavailable and since using service providers’ toilets is ill-considered due to shame and noncompliance of service providers, it comes as no surprise that people do urinate in public when nature calls. You might find a toilet you can use in public, but then these toilets are almost always exclusive to some groups of the community, mainly people with disabilities and women. In hopes to begin the conversation about this issue, we partnered with WaterAID and developed the Mechot App. Mechot App is a mobile application that helps the user locate the nearest clean, safe and accessible toilets. Toilets that are disabling accessible and female friendly are registered on the app to appease the impediments of finding a toilet up to everyone’s needs.
You have now partnered with a number of entities to make the effort become more inpactful. Tell me about that?
Our partners are diverse, we work to make it understood that lack of Sanitation is a problem of all. If one is unhealthy due to lack of proper sanitation, then all are at risk of being unhealthy. We work with organisations that share our sentiments to transform hygiene and sanitation behaviour in the community. We are now branching out to using toilets as an advertising scheme by partnering with different corporates that are looking to marry their business with social responsibility and giving back to the community.
The Mechot toilet advertising scheme aspires to make a difference by making hygiene and general sanitation understood, communicated easily, desirable & rewarding behavior and eventually develop a habit to efface incorrect bathroom behaviour and hygiene management. Especially now when the world is crumbling under the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, it is consequential that bathroom and hygiene setbacks are addressed. Who's better than a woman who proudly calls herself Queen of Toilet?
What is the long-term vision for this noble project you have going on?
I am building 1000 toilets throughout Ethiopia. I know that's a bold statement, but it is the truth. Toilets are necessities, you will find rest areas, public toilets, smart toilets and gas station toilets nationwide in other countries, I want that for Ethiopia. I aspire to make toilets inclusive, available and accessible at every corner of the country for everyone. A bus full of tourists traveling from Addis Ababa to Debrezeit will be forced to stop on the express highway to allow its passengers to openly defecate. We can go down the list of routes in which areas are well known for buses stopping by to allow its passengers to openly defecate. That’s a loss for Ethiopia.
Business opportunity loss, image loss, sanitation loss, and at times natural fertilizer loss is something I have observe4d. Why is that? Isn’t it obvious we use the toilet daily? Why aren’t there infrastructures meeting the toilet need? It’s only because there are customers that restaurants stay open and people can dine in the restaurant. Well people gotta go to the toilet daily, why not create a comfortable space? A comfortable toilet where one can access with dignity? I am.
What drives you to continue doing this?
Because I truly believe Ethiopia deserves better, I went to school abroad to come back home and serve my country. Alleviating this problem or at least to contribute to some degree is a privilege and worth my education. My 10+ years away from Ethiopia will only be worthwhile when I apply what I learned there to better my Ethiopia.
As the country undergoes an exigent transformational phase, it is important that individuals and organisations come together to succour the government as we advance to a developed Ethiopia. We don't want to duplicate efforts. We want to fill in the gap where we see opportunities. Opportunities for women and better sanitation for all. We believe people given opportunities and resources advance well in life and people with disability also advance better in life if the barriers we impose on them are removed. I was given great opportunities and resources, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’ therefore I have to be able to apply methods I have learned somewhere else for my country. If not expected from me, then from whom?
We have to be conscious of the barriers we have imposed on people with disabilities. Toilets lack ramps, handrails or Braille signs. I have learned that disability is impairment + barrier. We have to be able to remove the barriers we see and are unconsciously imposing. If we know that someone is mentally or physically impaired isn’t it only human to remove the barrier? But that's not the case for Ethiopia, and we are going to change that.
Have you watched the Gwadegna TV show on Kana? Every Saturday at 8pm we discuss toilet issues with Artist Tsedenia GebreMarkos who is also the Jegnit brand ambassador. We invite guests who are currently working on WASH and discuss issues of design, waste management and accessibility.
We are attacking the toilet problem 360 degrees. Awareness raising, sanitary product availability, toilet locator app, restroom advertising and now toilet construction should be availble to all. If its toilet related, we are on it! As Marakie the Queen of Toilet, this is my purpose and an honor to play a part in cleaning up my country. As Jegnit we want to be in accord with the country’s transformation and play our part. It is our country and our responsibility. We have had a lifetime long culture and tradition that binds us together as Ethiopians. It is time we stop looking elsewhere and be our own solutions and answers.
Any lasting words?
It is time Ethiopia is alleviated by her own children who are their own helping hands; we will no longer wait on others to drive up change for us. With individuals such as me, Mechot and others who are aspiring to make a difference, we aim to help in formulating our needs into demands and developing effective solutions as a unified front. We aim to shine a light on lack of inclusivity in hygiene and sanitation and be a voice to those who need it. We also intend to reform the reality for vulnerable members of the community and change narratives for women by changing the conversation, employing and empowering them to sustain themselves and attain financial liberation.
They say people concentrate better in toilets; I hope your readers read this in one.