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No toilets, but they have Bluetooth

Aleem Walji's picture

No toilets, but they have BluetoothI recently spent a day in a township near Cape Town, South Africa called Langa. My colleagues and I met a family of four who recently moved from a bleak room within a hostel to a shack in the back of a private house. They were immensely grateful for their good fortune (all sharing one bed and one room) explaining how much better their lives were with access to a private toilet.

What struck me was the optimism of the middle daughter, her desire to improve her life, her hope, and her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She smiled as she told us she could not play outside because it was not safe and had no heating as winter approached. But she was grateful because of another reality she knew too well.


In Langa as in many townships in South Africa, families often share rooms in extremely cramped quarters. Previously, her family of four shared one bed in a hostel room where 2 other families lived.  Up to 18 people lived in this room without access to a private toilet or other any form of privacy. As the girls got older, this became worrisome for the mother as the risk of sexual violence especially rape in public toilets was very high. Lilly’s mother pooled together all her resources and relocated her daughters to the backyard of another family who agreed to share their toilet (for a fee). There were 4 other families in the same position, however, and the demand for water was intense. For this reason, their landlady recently informed Lilly’s mother that her daughters were using too much water and she must find another place to live.

Her story struck at the very core of my being. As the mother feared for the safety of her daughters, she had few alternatives. She was already paying a premium for access to a private toilet, paying her elder daughter’s school fees, and sending Lilly to a “colored school” (better than the local black school). What could she do? I didn’t realize how access to basic sanitation could be so critical to the safety of a family and potentially make or break a young girl’s future and her dreams.

As we said goodbye, I asked to take a photo with the family. Lilly quickly took out her mobile phone/camera and informed me her memory card was full. She suggested I take a picture with my phone and send her the image by Bluetooth. We were stunned. What was she talking about? Why did she know about Bluetooth in a world where access to a toilet was not certain? Could both realities be true?

How can people have access to a mobile phone but be without the most basic of public services? For better or for worse, this is the case in much of Africa. Bipolar realities coexist to the surprise no one in Langa. But can mobile phones become a tool to improve access to missing services? Our Innovation Fair on conflict and fragility suggests the answer could be yes. While it’s far from certain, when I see the multiplicity of ways that people in Africa are using their mobile phones, I can only be hopeful that telephones can become tools to empower the poor to know more, ask for more, and get access to better public services over time.  Am I right to be hopeful?

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