National Geographic : 2019 May
EXPLORE | THROUGH THE LENS EXILIEN SAID HE GETS SICK OFTEN. BY THE END OF THE NIGHT, HIS EYES WERE NEARLY SWOLLEN SHUT. Exilien Cenat removes human waste from a multifamily pit toilet by hand. The job pays well but it is not respected. I arranged to meet Exilien and his two colleagues late at night in a courtyard between several houses. My photo editor had been concerned about the conditions so I’d packed protective gear: face masks and scarves (to block the smell) as well as rain gear (to protect my clothes). But when it came time to put it all on, I found I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to make him feel like his job was disgusting. It’s his profession, something only a few people know how to do, and he does it well. Most of the lights in the courtyard were out, and the families were asleep. The toilet in the outhouse hadn’t been emptied in more than a year. Exilien began his work by reaching into the hole to scoop out the freshest layer. The stench permeated the air. His two colleagues deftly dumped the sewage into what looked like old seed sacks, tying them up perfectly without any leaks. They had more experience than Exilien and had graduated from cleaning the hole. In order to endure the smell and discomfort, the three men drank and smoked throughout the night. One guy would hold a cigarette so Exilien could take a few puffs without touching the cigarette with his soiled hands. Once the contents of the hole were beyond his reach, Exilien climbed down into it. He told me that he’d come across snakes and human remains in toilets. Snakes were his enemies, he said. Other bayakou told me about encountering live wires and suffering electric shocks. Those are the dangers they can see. Hidden from sight are the diseases. Cholera still kills in Haiti, although treatment centers make it less deadly in the city. Exilien said he gets sick often. By the end of the night, his eyes were nearly swollen shut. Bayakou wash themselves very carefully after a night’s work (as did I—and I threw away what I was wearing). Most work naked to avoid ruining clothes. Exilien kept his on for most of that night, I think because I was there. But in the end, after he’d cleaned himself and changed, he had to strip down completely. The owner of the toilet expressed dissatisfaction with how it had been cleaned. So Exilien, after remov- ing his fresh clothes, went back to do more. Afterward, the three men loaded the sacks of sew- age into a cart and rolled them down to the river, where they dumped the bags in the water. There’s a government facility that treats sewage, but you need a truck to get there, and they don’t have one. Exilien wanted people to see what he does. No one wants to be invisible. That’s what I find so powerful about photography. When you take someone’s pic- ture, you are telling them: Your life is important. j Andrea Bruce focuses on people living in the aftermath of war. Her story on sanitation ran in the August 2017 issue.