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Story Publication logo August 3, 2017

Haiti's 'Bayakou': Hauling Away Human Excrement by Hand


After the 2010 earthquake, NGOs dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage at the end of the Port-au-Prince city landfill, which borders the sea and is not lined with an impermeable material. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.

A plan to build sewage treatment plants all over Haiti after the 2010 earthquake has stalled...

Gabriel Toto, 35, has been working as a bayakou, or latrine cleaner, for a decade. On nights without a journalist watching, he generally works naked. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.
Gabriel Toto, 35, has been working as a bayakou, or latrine cleaner, for a decade. On nights without a journalist watching, he generally works naked. Image by Marie Arago/NPR. Haiti, 2017.


Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is one of the largest cities in the world without a central sewage system. Most of the more than 3 million residents use outhouses and rely on workers with some of the worst jobs in the world, hauling away human excrement by hand one bucket at a time. The men are called bayakou, and they work in the dark by candlelight. Rebecca Hersher spent a night with a group of them.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: As soon as we arrive, you can smell it. It's a heavy, earthy stench, like rotten eggs and grosser things.


An estimated 1 in 5 Haitians don't have access to any kind of latrine. Those who do have outhouses generally hire a bayakou to clean them out. Tonight, a team of four bayakou are emptying one outhouse. One of the guys, Gabriel Toto, is sitting on the edge of the hole, his bare feet in the brown soup below, holding a big stick.


HERSHER: The stick measures about 15 feet deep. Tonight, with a foreign reporter around, Gabriel is wearing knee-length pants and gloves. Usually, he works naked.

TOTO: (Through interpreter) They don't usually give us these gloves and things, when you're not here.

HERSHER: He grabs a bucket, lights a cigarette and steps into the hole. It's 9:30 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So he's going to start now.


HERSHER: The men joke as they work. Every so often, they dump out a bucket and find something weird or dangerous - sticks, rocks, trash, razor blades. At one point, the photographer with me freaks out.


HERSHER: There's a gun in the latrine (laughter).

They look the gun over, determine it doesn't work and move on. It takes about three hours for Gabriel to empty the hole. By the end, he's sweating and covered in human waste. His gloves are ripped.

Have you ever been injured?

TOTO: (Through interpreter) I have been injured many places, like my fingers, my arms. And even I have stitches in my legs, on my feet - same situation. I even lost one of my toenails one day when I was working.

HERSHER: Later, another bayakou pulls me aside to show me his eyes, red and pus-filled with an infection he says he's had for years. Most bayakou teams dump the waste wherever they can. About 53,000 gallons of human waste makes its way into city canals and roadside ditches every day in Port-au-Prince. It spreads disease. Haiti is still in the midst of a cholera epidemic. It catches fire during rainstorms. The contents of your outhouse might just show up unannounced in your living room. But tonight, the drums are being trucked to a safer, more official place, the only sewage treatment plant in Haiti because, tonight, these bayakou are working for one of the two big sanitation companies in Port-au-Prince.

FLAURE DUBOIS: Us as a company - as a private company, we make sure that they are going the right place. They load the drums into a truck. And it's our driver.

HERSHER: Flaure Dubois is the financial director at Jedco. She and the company's operations manager, Rudy Riviere, say one way to make Haiti's sanitation system better is to professionalize the bayakou business.

RUDY RIVIERE: Haitians do not mind paying for something. But they just want to understand what they're getting for it.

HERSHER: For example, Jedco has been advertising the dangers of raw sewage. If people are afraid, maybe they'll pay to have it trucked away rather than dumped into an open canal. The obvious upside for the company is more customers and more money. Back at the sewage treatment plant, it's 2:30 in the morning, and the bayakou who are blasting tunes out of the truck while they unload the night's haul.


HERSHER: Gabriel is standing in the parking lot, shirtless and wet from a bucket bath in the back of the truck. Of the $175 that Jedco got from tonight's client, Gabriel will take home four dollars. The company doesn't provide showers, health care or even water for the guys to drink on the job. The four bucks isn't enough to feed Gabriel's three kids. And bayakou and their families are stigmatized and even ostracized. It's one of the reasons they only work in the dark.

TOTO: (Through interpreter) So many times, I've been humiliated by the work that I'm doing. You have seen what I've done. Some people will never stand close to me - like talking to me the same way that you are talking to me as close as you are. Like, they will stay away from me.

HERSHER: He says getting people to pay to have their sewage trucked out of the city isn't enough to change the culture around sanitation in Haiti. People also need to respect those who do the dirty work, which starts with better pay and basic health care.

TOTO: (Through interpreter) The first people who should give value to the work that we are doing are those people at the company. And, you know, when they sit behind their desk in the AC, they don't care. They don't take care of us. So if they don't give value to what we are doing, who else will give value to that?

HERSHER: But he's not holding his breath for things to change. He says his dream is to get his driver's license. God willing, he says, his children will never do this work. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher in Port-au-Prince.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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