Cathy Ayer is part of a British Red Cross team in Haiti helping improve sanitation for earthquake survivors. She sent back this story on some of the more unusual ways they’ve found to make toilets fun.

Clowns. Funny guys that fall over a lot. Baggy pants. Little tricycles. Honking. More likely to be found in a circus than a camp for earthquake affected people. That was my experience of clowns until this morning when I attended a Red Cross hygiene promotion session in Automeca camp in Port Au Prince.

Automeca camp is currently home to approximately 10,000 people, densely populated in the centre of town with ramshshackle shelters squeezed tightly together. The British Red Cross sanitation team has been working in this camp for over 4 weeks for people made homeless by the earthquake. We have erected latrines and hand washing facilities so that people now have a safe and secure place to go to the loo. We have also undertaken a large hygiene promotion campaign with the residents of the camp. Hygiene promotion is all about delivering essential messages on how to maintain good hygiene to keep you and your family healthy, such as correct use of latrines, hand washing and storage of water. These things are absolutely vital…but is talking about going to the toilet sexy?

This is why hygiene promoters have to be extremely creative. They have to get the key messages out in such a way that it is interesting, engaging, clear, easily understood and makes people want to tell their friends and practice good hygiene. Today I saw Red Cross volunteers conducting a hygiene promotion session using glitter on people’s hands to demonstrate how harmful bacteria can be spread from person to person if they don’t wash their hands. They taught the people songs about why hygiene is good and everyone joined in singing and clapping their hands!

I then wandered over in to the centre of Automeca camp for the main attraction…the clowns! Liz, our hygiene promoter had found a group of local, professional performers, living in another camp in Port Au Prince, who have a clown act and she asked if they would join us to speak to the people in Automeca to promote hygiene. I was not sure what to expect…red noses? make up? Twirling bow ties? Instead I found something much more hilarious. A young guy dressed as an old man complete with white beard, an old man dressed as a baby (man size nappy included) and a scruffy clown with comedy breeches.

Hundreds of people gathered to see what was going to happen with these odd individuals. They had a loud speaker, and the girls in the group explained to the audience that they were here with the Red Cross to give them important information on health and hygiene, then the guys launched in to their fast paced comedy Creole routine. The “baby clown” spoke in a high pitched baby voice and had the crowd in hysterical laughter! The old man scolded the baby for not knowing how to use a latrine properly and instead invited the audience to contribute ideas on how it should be done properly. Members of the audience were pulled in to the act and everyone participated in agreeing what was good hygiene and what wasn’t.

A man with a loudspeaker talks to a crowd in HaitiEmpowering people with the knowledge to keep themselves healthy in very difficult circumstances in these camps is very rewarding but what really touched me was the reaction of the kids to the clowns. Thousands of kids live in these camps across Haiti. Many will have lost parents and guardians, all are vulnerable and the trauma they experienced during the earthquake and since is hard to imagine. A group of hygiene promoting clowns is not going to take away all that trauma but if they can make them smile and laugh and perhaps forget their situation for a short time, it is a wonderful thing.

Images © Cathy Ayer/British Red Cross