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Castle in the Clouds

Is there a culturally sensitive way to introduce an ancient Tibetan people to the latrine?

At 14,000 feet, each breath carries only about half as much oxygen as at sea level. Already, one member of our party, overcome by altitude sickness, has had to be evacuated to a lower elevation. There are six of us now—three engineering students, two liberal arts students (of whom I am one), and our faculty adviser, Professor Douglas Matson—all members of the newly formed Tufts chapter of a national organization called Engineers Without Borders. Crammed into a 4x4, we are traversing a Himalayan pass in the direction of Gyapthang, a small community in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. We hope to help raise living standards there by introducing “appropriate” technology, designs that take the local environment, culture, and economy into account.

Just five years ago, Gyapthang’s population was almost entirely nomadic. The government built houses and provided running water, which, in turn, settled the community. No longer moving from place to place, the people of Gyapthang face depleted resources and problems managing human waste. Firewood can take many hours a day to gather now that sparse tree cover is receding up the mountains, and the open latrines aren’t adequate to contain bacteria and the spread of disease. Along with other students back at Tufts, we have developed two designs to address these new complications: a solar cooker and a closed self-composting latrine.

We don’t expect to build any permanent structure on this trip, only to gather information. Is the community interested in the designs? What materials are available? Where do bacteria, which our latrine is designed to control, fit into the Buddhist understanding of life? Actual construction, we assume, will wait for another trip.

A strong sun is up when we arrive among Gyapthang’s 105 houses. Made of stone and mud with corrugated steel roofs, they are perfectly aligned in 15 rows, their red doors numbered in the order of the homes’ construction. The leader of this town of 750 people and the head of the Women’s League come to welcome us, sticking out their tongues in the Tibetan sign of respect. They invite us to tea.

As we sip, I worry that our presence might have unintended consequences. Suppose the arrival of affluent, digital camera-toting Westerners were to sow discontent, or the community were to grow dependent on materials or technologies we introduce. But I am reassured when the head of the Women’s League tells us, through a translator, “If we are to survive as a people, we must learn from you.”

In the dusty courtyard of the community center, we hold a town meeting. It is there that the community members throw us into a mild panic. Not only do they want a latrine, they tell us, but they want it now. Construction can begin after the coming festival, in two days. We exchange apprehensive glances. Bringing a blueprint of a trailer-sized structure to life with scant construction experience—and before our permits expire, just 10 days from now—is a daunting prospect. We barely have time to plan when the Harvest Festival is upon us.

The festival is said to be more than 1,400 years old, a remnant of the Bön religion that preceded Buddhism here. Men come down from the mountains, where for two weeks they’ve been collecting caterpillar fungus, an expensive ginseng-like medicine. The children return from boarding school. Others return from construction jobs in neighboring towns. A growing excitement spreads along the dirt streets as the stone houses fill with reuniting families.

On the morning of the festival, we are invited into a courtyard, where women in traditional red and turquoise jewelry and brightly colored aprons pour chang, a homemade barley beer, from teakettles and gasoline canisters. The monk sitting beside us refuses and drinks his butter tea instead. We cover our cups with our hands when we’ve had enough, but the women pour between our fingers; it’s both courtesy and novelty to have us drunk. Men race horses along the main road, and afterward, scriptures are sashed to people’s backs as a flag bearer, a drummer, and a conch-blower lead everyone around the fields in a half-day procession, praying for a bumper harvest.

Later that night we are again called to join the celebration. The mood is different now, more contemplative. Faces are half lit by a crackling fire as the air fills with incense and smoke. Children run back and forth with flashlights in their hands, dots of flickering, laughing light. Men stand on one half of a great circle, and women on the other, holding hands. One by one, we visitors join the formation. An old man beside me grips my hand warmly. The men and women sing back and forth in call and response, the circle turning like clockwork beneath the cloudless sky. Somewhere between midnight and dawn, among the mountains and under the spinning stars, we become lost in the rhythm that has governed these people’s lives for centuries.

The embrace of the festival fades over the next week, and nearly all our time is filled with work. Jonny Crocker, E07, an environmental engineering major, tests the town’s water supply for contaminants. The town’s chief builder offers to organize local labor for building the latrine. Sarah Freeman, E05, MS07, who wrote her thesis on the design of the latrine, works with him daily to detail the critical components: the urine separator and ventilation pipes that keep the waste dry and composting quickly, and the black south-facing doors that maximize sunlight and heat, allowing the waste to compost longer before it freezes in the harsh winters. We offer to pay for the concrete and steel doors, and are fortunate that PVC pipe is available in the nearby county seat. The shell of the latrine can be built with mud, stone, and a metal roof, similar to surrounding houses.

The town rents a jackhammer to dig out the rocky foundation, and the rest is accomplished elegantly with simple tools. Fifteen workers a mile down the road break off rocks with sledgehammers. The rocks are then hefted onto a carriage pulled by a two-wheeled tractor to the construction site. The men take each new load and chip the rocks, expertly piecing together the new walls while the women use shovels to turn earth and water into thick mortar.

It’s a hard push. We take turns sick in bed from the stomach flu and diarrhea, but people from the town come each morning, working until noon, when the temperatures reach 104 degrees F. The walls go up first, then the piping, the roof, and the doors.

Meanwhile, the solar cooker takes shape. Because the team member who developed altitude sickness was our solar cooker specialist, Grant Sharpe, E06, a mechanical engineer, assumes the role. He and a carpenter build a prototype, a wooden box with open petals covered in reflective tape. The petals direct sunlight through a dual-paned glass top into an insulated chamber where food or water can be placed for cooking. If successful, the design will enable the community to use less firewood. It will also reduce smoke inhalation from indoor cooking, which can cause fatal respiratory infections in young children.

With little time left, the solar cooker tests to 250 degrees F. While it won’t bake the apple pie we have made with yak butter and barley flour, it will boil water.

Incredibly, the latrine is finished, too. Now our challenge is to translate its value into terms that are culturally meaningful. We present a play in which the main character becomes ill, and we ask the audience members to note the differences they see in a second play in which the person stays healthy by using proper hygiene practices. After a brief discussion, we explain each component of the new latrine, finishing the session by inviting everyone to sing a song in Tibetan.

It is our last day, and the townspeople gather around to say goodbye. Draped in white silken prayer scarves, we pile into the 4x4 that will carry us to Lhasa to leave for Beijing. The structures we leave behind are a substantial accomplishment for us, but (I muse as Gyapthang fades into the mountain-hugging clouds) may be less significant for the villagers. In the course of our efforts, we have seen a culture that people here have maintained, even through the shock of settlement. We have lost ourselves in their timeless dance, and been introduced, for the first time in our lives, to the rhythm of an entire community pulling together to survive.

I had worried that our efforts at improving sanitation would disrupt their way of life. But perhaps it is we who have been disrupted.

Support for the trip came from Fredric S. Berger, A70, a member of the Engineering Board of Overseers, and from the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership, Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, and KunDe, the expedition’s host organization in China.

ELLIOT HIRSHON, A05, was born and raised in State College, Pennsylvania, where he currently resides. Immersed in a Penn State course in African literature, he’s also working at an outdoors store and volunteering with local and international elementary students, who constantly teach him.

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