You don’t see what the girls are doing at first. They’re on a beach, after all, and it really is perfect; the sort of beach you dream of. Beautiful sand, beautiful boats, and a young woman waist deep in the sea with her fishing net. A few folds of her dress float on the water’s surface.

And yet despite all this beauty, something is not right.

The first clue is the way people walking on the beach, stop - not to check a boat, or chat to a friend, something else. The two girls are walking to the isolated side of the beach. They are switched-on teenagers; one has a peroxide hair weave and a mobile phone. Suddenly, they stop, then crouch side by side.

Morandava on the west of Madagascar is home to a community of Veso - traditional fishermen. The warren of closely packed houses and chaotic alleyways that borders the beach is home to around 5000 people. Roughly 2% have a toilet. The rest use the beach.

Around the corner is a glamorous five star hotel where tourists lie on sun-loungers with cold martinis.

“There is nothing good about pooing on the beach,”
Florette, 16 (left) with her friend Shella, 15, on the beach in Morondava, Madagascar.

says Florette, walking with her friend Shella, “People can see us, every time we go.”

Young people are angry about the lack of sanitation. But fighting for change is pointless. “It’s always about money and people don’t have money,” says Florette. Kolo Fritjob, the mayor of Morondava, says he has the budget to build only one toilet a year. He receives no money from central government for sanitation. “It is not their priority,” he explains.

Florette, who is one of four children, describes her fantasy toilet. She has given the subject some thought. “Really big with rose walls and white tiles,” she says. “It would have a flush, soft toilet paper and a lockable door.”

Going to the toilet is something we all do. It’s as basic as breathing, yet how often do we really think about where we go? And yet where we go is one of the most important issues facing the world.

Forget high-speed internet access or mobile phones, the gulf between rich and poor can’t be tackled without addressing toilets. It’s not what happens in them, exactly, that makes toilets life-changing, but rather, what doesn’t happen in them. If you have a toilet you are freed from the terror of snakes in the middle of the night, of someone seeing you, of not being decent, of getting sick. When you have a toilet, you are shielded from risk.

But toilets aren’t solely about health and practical matters. They are beautiful constructions that often seem to tell you about the inner life of their owners.

If you want to know what it’s like to yearn for a baby, to get divorced, to have a mental illness, to grow plants, to be happy about dying, you can find it here in these stories of people and their toilets.

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