Mzee Francis: The blind pit latrine digger of Bungoma County

Bungoma town in Western Kenya

On a bright and Tuesday early morning, we set out on a journey to meet Francis Wasike a 64-year-old blind man in Sitikho village in Webuye, Western Kenya. For most of our feature stories, we get hold of our subjects’ contacts beforehand, but for this particular, it seemed quite difficult to get his contact details, excusably so.

Webuye is approximately 25 kilometers from Bungoma where we were holding up, now to get to Sitikho village it took us another 10 or so kilometers, a drive filled with constantly asking the residents’ (Unajua Mzee Francis yule anayechimba choo ingawa macho yake imepofuka?)loosely translated to ‘Do you know of Mzee Francis the blind man who digs pit latrines?) and as they say, the rest is history and luck was on our side that particular day

Alice Wasike(Far right), Middle Mzee Francis Wasike, with neighbors who had just visited.PHOTO/STEVE WAMAYEYE-Field assistant.

We get to the village of Wasike and meet the wife Alice Wasike who welcomes us in the semi-permanent house as he tells us that her husband had just left a few minutes before we got there and she asks us to assist her with phone airtime to call him and in less than 30 minutes we meet Mzee Francis.

Visibly frail but welcoming and happy he shares with us pleasantries as a way of welcoming to his humble aboard. He takes us through how he lost his sight back in 1982 while he was 28 years old a young man still at the university level.

CGTN’s Dinah Matengo interviews Mzee Wasike.PHOTO/STEVE WAMAYEYE-field assistant

Not a single day, did he experience any eyesight problem until one day his privilege to see his surroundings was flashed away. He went to the hospital after hospital to no avail and his education had to be cut short unexpectedly and he returned back to staying at home.

At first, he tells us he resorted to farming, but his efforts would go down the drain as he often would cut the produce that was growing due to lack of sight. That’s when he resorted to digging pit latrines, an activity he said started back when he was 10 years old but was doing it for fun, then one day when one of his neighbors was relocating he almost fell down a pit latrine that was being constructed, upon the rescue of his villagers and he did not know that perhaps that was fate knocking on his door.

Mzee Francis Wasike showing us the last toilet he dug two weeks before our visit. The toilet has since been cemented to a smaller width that is significant with pit latrines.PHOTO/STEVE WAMEYEYE-Field assistant

Three decades later, Wasike has dug more than 100 toilets and he charges between Kshs 500-1000. ($5-$10). Over the years he tells us his community members have often referred him to different jobs but the challenge comes in during payment time

“My daughter let me tell you that’s where the problem is, you can agree with someone on the amount and once you are done someone can give you even Kshs 200($2) and they were to pay you Kshs1000($10) and there’s nothing you can do,.. where can you even find him?”

His family solely depends on his job but when such instances happen they are forced to sleep hungry. His sixth wife Alice Wasike is also a stay-at-home wife who doesn’t have any source of income

Mama,mimi nikipata hata mtu anifungulie duka ya biashara inaeza tusaidia sana’’, she tells us..loosely translated to, ”If I can just get even a shop to sell stuff it can really help us.”

Wasike takes us round his homestead and the latrine at the house he is the one who dug it, and he demonstrates the process using a small piece of land in his house, he has a ‘panga’, and a rope that he uses to measure the width together with his walking stick and he tells us through his experience over years he is able to know how many feet he has dug.

Mzee Wasike demonstrating to us how he starts digging the latrines.PHOTO/STEVE WAMEYEYE-field assistant

“When digging the toilets I use my hands just feeling around and I dig going down. I use my hands to know the depth, (shows description using his hand stick)this is 6 inches when I do this twice this is one feet’s I just count one, two till the end I will know how many feet I have dug.”

Wasike is so full of life. He has no regrets whatsoever in the life he has lived while digging toilets. As he worked,  I constantly held my breath, worrying that he would hit himself, but alas he said he’s never had any close calls

“My daughter I have never hit myself.”

Mzee Wasike with his wife Alice at their house.PHOTO/STEVE WAMEYEYE-field assistant

One can only wonder where he gets his inspiration despite all these challenges.

“You know my daughter, work is work, he tells me. As long as it brings food to the table,  I challenge these young people never choose work.”

As we wrap he tells us that one day he hopes he could regain his eyesight, sentiments equally shared by his wife

“What I’ve gone through in my state when I get to see I can do miracles because I can teach people what I’ve been through and I would tell them how I’ve lived when you don’t have eyes life is very hard when you are disabled life is very hard.”

We leave Mzee Wasike’s homestead quite challenged albeit satisfied that despite his condition he is able to put up a face of strength and courage going about his business.