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Honoring the Black Inventors in Sanitation

Updated: Jul 2

FLUSH Associates Lena Musoka and Sarah Lebu co-wrote this blog.

This week marks the end of Black History Month!

A black fist in the air in front of red, yellow, and green stripes
Credit: The Anchor

At FLUSH, we celebrate this month by reflecting on how Black indigenous knowledge, individuals, and innovators have contributed to the sanitation sector. Did you know that African communities from Mali to Kenya used toilets and sewer systems while Europeans were still relieving themselves outside? It is easy to think that the history of sanitation starts with Victorian England, but that ignores a rich history thousands of years older that also included Black-majority cultures. This blog aims to reflect on modern contributions to sanitation in Black history.

Sanitation’s Hidden History

In many Black-majority countries and cultures, the stories and records about sanitation practices often started gaining attention when White settlers arrived. The available documentation focuses heavily on the colonial era, leaving little to no information about sanitation practices before that time. In Africa, it becomes even clearer that there is a lack of evidence when we look into the historical sanitation practices of indigenous peoples

The evidence on the state of sanitation points to the idea that, in many Black-majority countries and communities, poor access is intricately related to colonialism and classism. Sanitation policies and development efforts from the 1800s onward often favored privileged classes, which were often white. In some African countries, sanitation infrastructure like sewers primarily served the colonizers without extending to where indigenous populations lived. In colonial Lagos, there was very little to no investment in sanitation infrastructure for Nigerian nationals who lived in segregated and deplorable living conditions. Today, sanitation infrastructure remains inequitably distributed across previously colonized cities and exists in higher-income areas of those areas. 

Recognizing our colonial legacies helps us look for the direct contributions of Black indigenous knowledge and individuals. Despite often going undocumented, the contributions of Black people to sanitation are immense. In this blog, we aim to reflect on a few Black indigenous practices that continue to advance efforts for safe sanitation for all. 

Honoring Black Indigenous Practices in Sanitation

Tanzanian menstrual products

After Cyclone Idai in 2019, the women in a Tanzanian community used indigenous knowledge and practices to manage their periods safely. When floods washed away essentials like sanitary napkins, they had to get creative and draw on their ancestral knowledge of local resources to find solutions. The women used materials like water hyacinth, banana fiber, bamboo fiber, and dry cow dung to make makeshift menstrual hygiene products. The use of indigenous knowledge for menstrual health is not a foreign concept for many Black communities. According to African tradition, disposing of menstrual products carries significant symbolic meaning; burning or smearing them with mud before disposal is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and rituals

Zulu hygiene

In the Zulu community in South Africa, sanitation and waste management practices are intertwined with respect for nature. Indigenous Zulu communities buried their excreta after digging holes, ensuring the waste remained below the surface and blended well with the environment. In this community, the intimate relationship between water and sanitation existed for many years. As sanitation practices evolved in the community, community members placed designated waste areas away from water sources, recognizing rivers' and streams' vital and growing role in their lives. Another example of safe sanitation and hygiene practices in the indigenous Zulu community is that they had a clay basin filled with water for handwashing near the designated toilet areas. The community, particularly women, was in the habit of changing this water frequently. As the world still grapples with complex sanitation challenges, the Zulu community's age-old wisdom offers valuable lessons in integrating cultural wisdom with modern technologies and innovations.

Liberating women during their periods

An image of Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (Credit: Ruby Love)

Kenner invented a sanitary belt - a predecessor to the maxi pad that remains useful today for managing women’s flow before we had adhesives. From the mid-19th century to the 1970s, menstruating women wore sanitary belts to hold their sanitary pads between their legs. During that time, tampons were available but were considered indecent, so women used cloth or rags for protection - or just stayed at home. 

Kenner’s invention wasn’t an easy win. Initially, a company interested in the belt rejected it after learning that Kenner was black. Her invention wasn't patented until thirty years later when she saved enough money. Ultimately, Kenner filed up to five patents during her lifetime, including multiple prototypes of the sanitary belt, the toilet tissue holder, and a carrier attachment for invalid walkers!

Kenner’s invention gave women more freedom during their period. Accessible and comfortable menstruation products for women remain relevant today.


Advocating for basic rights to manage female bodies with dignity

Gloria Orwoba (1986 - present)

Gloria Owroba (Credits: The Guardian, The Standard)

For years, the young senator Gloria Orwoba has battled against period poverty and shaming in Kenya by redefining the narrative around menstrual hygiene. Throughout her tenure, she tirelessly advocated for cheaper menstrual products for girls, and menstrual health has improved noticeably in the country.

Thanks to her advocacy, a value-added tax on pads and tampons was repealed in Kenya in 2004 to make products more affordable About $3 million annually in the national budget has already been set aside for free sanitary pads to low-income schools

The call she makes to everyone - "We must normalize periods."

Pioneering Sanitation with the Water Closet Attachment

J.B Rhodes (1865 - 1931, unidentified photo of person)

JB Rhodes' water closet patent (Credit: The Washington Post)

Jerome Bonaparte (J.B.) Rhodes was the visionary behind a toilet invention. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Rhodes patented an innovative water closet attachment in 1899. This attachment was a tube that served similar functions as the modern bidet. Rhodes was a plumbing pioneer whose invention significantly impacted sanitation. 

Before J.B. contributed to improving the water closet, sanitation conditions were difficult and unsafe. Managing poo with safe hygiene practices was a daily challenge, and the stench of open sewage gutters was awful. Without proper toilets and hygienic conditions, people resorted to using unsanitary privies or simply relieving themselves wherever they could outside. These unsanitary conditions not only made life unpleasant but also facilitated the spread of deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid.

His invention addressed practical needs and paved the way for improving plumbing technology. His creation improved hygiene and sanitation practices in households and public facilities. 


As we consider the roles of Black individuals and communities in the sanitation sector, let’s actively work towards reshaping its historical narrative. Let’s continue amplifying their voices and recognizing their invaluable contributions. Though this week is officially the end of Black History Month, we challenge and encourage each other to continue reflecting on the significant contributions of Black individuals across different sectors and recognize the importance of continually educating ourselves. 

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