Published: 02nd April 2017
Loo and behold: Meet the US student who's been staying in UP's remotest villages for five years to build 'one toilet at a time'
Since 2012, Marta Vanduzer-Snow, a PhD student from the US, has been building toilets in the most backward villages of UP. Despite all the turmoil and general mistrust, she's managed to cut the stink
If you heard that a 36-year-old American PhD student from Rutgers University gave up her fancy life in New York to build toilets in Uttar Pradesh, don’t be baffled. You heard it right! That’s what Marta Vanduzer-Snow did. She moved to rural India in 2012 after the loss of a close friend that made her realise that she needs to follow her heart. She’s been working in the areas of education, healthcare, and infrastructures like organic farming, water, power, transport in Amethi and Rae Bareli.
“My 20s were mostly spent living comfortably in New York City with a computer, researching and writing. I was a part of a project to reform the IMF and I co-authored books on the US foreign policy that I hoped would make someone like Noam Chomsky proud. I had everything in place to be a ‘proper’ adult. I just had to finish my PhD, but I couldn’t ignore this feeling that the world needs more doing and less talking,” says Marta.
Potty training: One of her evapotranspiration toilets
She explains, “I think when I stare death in the face, I won’t remember the times I was warm and comfortable in a fancy place. I will remember the times that I felt loved and appreciated, challenged, in service, solidarity — a part of something bigger than the self, truly grateful for life. So, I packed up everything I had, left behind everything I had ever known, moved here, and started working in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, India.” She says that this has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of her life.
“No degree, no book, nothing comes close to the fulfilment I have felt through this service. I can’t explain how I feel supporting another human being at the most basic and fundamental level,” she adds, talking about her work through her project Better Village, Better World. In the last few years, she’s built 143 evapotranspiration toilets in six villages including Amethi and Rae Bareli that have actually cost less than the ones built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan scheme. Evapotranspiration toilets use the process by which water is carried from the land to the atmosphere via evaporation from the soil and other surfaces and by transpiration from plants. Also, she’s been key in constructing preamble roads and solar powering homes.
“It hasn’t been easy. I spent two months in the village and slowly people started to understand and support my work. I took the time to realise the importance of communication and improvisation. Collaboration is a big part of explaining the ‘how’ of our work. We try our best to have a collaborative, non-hierarchical worksite. The only bosses are the experts who guide us. On site, we are all workers — no malik-mistri labour divide. Everyone does everything,” says Marta humbly.
We ask those who don’t use the toilet why they don’t. We never lecture the people we work with. We use art, street theatre and graffiti to encourage toilet use. Monitoring toilet usage and performance is an important part of this work and improving our model
Marta Vanduzer-Snow, Social worker
She works with her programme coordinator, Pawan Singh, who provides help on the ground while also doing physical labour alongside everyone else. Last year, they managed to raise Rs.793,928 through crowdfunding that paved the way to working in four more villages, building more toilets and solar powering homes. She’s currently exploring ways in which education, healthcare and infrastructure overlap, their connections, and how collaboration can be leveraged for the greater good. She can be reached at facebook.com/BetterVillageBetterWorld/.
WATCH: Her TED talk at TEDx GLIM