[This is the foreword to the 2014 Indian edition of The Humanure Handbook,
published by the Banyan Tree Bookstore in Indore, MP.]
A stranger’s kindness shaped Joseph Jenkins’ life.
It was 1972. The US government was waging a violent conflict in Vietnam. The military was forcibly drafting all young men aged 18 years and above. Jenkins, just turned 18, was a pre-medical student then at the Penn State University. A stranger approached him in the college cafeteria and asked him to fill out a student deferment form. Because Jenkins filled it out, he escaped fighting what was to him an immoral war. He graduated in 1974 and took a vow of poverty: he would not earn the amount of money that invited federal income tax. So long as taxes were used for wars that killed innocent people, he wouldn’t pay tax.
That was 40 years ago. Since then, Jenkins has carved his own path. He began by farming in areas with no running water and electricity. Which meant his living conditions were similar to those of hundreds of millions of farmers across countries labelled ‘poor’ and ‘developing’ in economics shorthand. Unlike farmers of poor tropical countries, though, Jenkins had the best of information and ideas that come from living in a prosperous, resource-rich society. He took those ideas and tried them out in his life. One of these ideas had to do with sanitation.
In the absence of a water-borne sewage system, Jenkins had to use a pit latrine. It was stinky, frequented by flies, wasps and spiders. He had to go outside to relieve himself, regardless of the time of day or night, in weather that often got extreme. These are familiar conditions for a majority of India’s population. There were important differences, too. He soon began using a chamber pot. He realised excreta did not smell so bad if it was covered in sawdust, which was plentiful on the farm he inhabited in his life of poverty. He had never seen anybody use sawdust for this purpose. The invention was borne out of necessity.
The ideas that took him towards ‘humanure’—manure made out of human excrement—had to do with limitations of space and resources, the peculiar conditions of a life of self-imposed poverty. It was about improvisation, about getting by, about immediate answers.
From those days in the 1970s, Jenkins has come a long, long way. He is today an authority on the subject of digesting human excrement and making manure out of it. He has combed through scientific literature, he has read copiously, he has contacted helpful people far and wide. Most of all, Jenkins has tried out his ideas in his life. When he talks or writes, it is with the kind of authority you might not find even in scientists.
The difference between his words and those of a laboratory scientist or a policy entrepreneur loaded with scientific research is striking. For an analogy, imagine the difference between learning about politics and ethics from a political science professor or from Nelson Mandela or MK Gandhi. Old-timers will tell you the reason so many remarkable people have found recourse in the Bhagwad Gita: it tackles large, philosophical questions in the middle of a battlefield. Not a theoretical debate carried out from the comfort of an air-conditioned room via a computer laptop or a smartphone.
People who have worked on sanitation for several years in India say the people who make and implement government plans and schemes have not spent time trying out those ideas in the battlefields of life. The government is used to setting a target—say, “sanitation for all”—and then putting in resources for it. Only to later learn that they got some critical things wrong in the first place. Consider the current effort of the government, the Swachh Bharat Mission. It is the latest avatar of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, which was an updated edition of the Total Sanitation Campaign of 1999, which itself was a modification of the Central Rural Sanitation Programme of 1986.
The latest mantra in sanitation is ‘Behaviour Change Communication’ (BCC in acronymed development lingo). Several consultants and activists are trying to change the behaviour of other people.
Jenkins changed his behaviour 40 years ago. He experimented with his life and emerged on the other side with a smile. He talks and writes from what he has tried and tested over years. As useful as this book is for understanding sanitation, it is perhaps more useful for agriculture scientists. For India’s soils lose an estimated 10 million tonnes of soil nutrients each year. If we are to feed ourselves in the future, we will have to find ways to keep this nutrient on land, rather than dumping it in the waterways through a sewage system—polluting water sources and impoverishing the land.
For all people who are looking for practical solutions in their life—and not just solutions that are discussed in academic papers or TV studios—Jenkins’ story is an inspiration and a resource. This is not policy advise to fix problems for other people. This is for those who want to do things better in their lives.
Jenkins’ life was shaped by a war and serendipity, the kindness of a stranger. In his life, he has never forgotten that stranger. He has stuck to values and ethics that show the connection among all of us, among all forms of life. The US government, meanwhile, is still engaged in violent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Jenkins finds about as unethical as the Vietnam war. Today, in those faraway lands afflicted with violence, strangers appear in the form of soldiers and insurgents and drones, firing weapons. Jenkins is a different kind of stranger, a kind stranger.
Most of us have felt the kindness of a stranger at some point or another. Most of us have also experienced the oppression of a large collective, like a school or a government office. The Humanure Handbook offers ideas to make our collectives—our society, our schools, our offices, our governments—a little more ethical. With a joke and a smile, with a sense of humour often lacking in the dreary discussions of such subjects. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. I hope it brings to you the sense of a stranger’s kindness.
Sopan Joshi, New Delhi
December 10, 2014