a tippy tap tale seeking engineers and designers

A COUPLE of weeks ago I amused a group of schoolchildren at Katosi, on the shores of Lake Victoria in the Mukono area, when I broke away from the main event to walk round their little school taking

Katosi Church of Uganda Primary School - Photo by Simon Kaheru
Katosi Church of Uganda Primary School – Photo by Simon Kaheru


I ended up in the corner of the school at the elevated latrines and paid those a quick visit, which got them chittering and pointing fingers at me.
When I stepped out of the latrine cubicle I found a small crowd waiting to see the spectacle, and though they didn’t give me a round of applause, I descended like a performer getting onto a stage.
Little did I know that I was slated to put on a little performance.
Having noticed a sign on the wall that instructed us to wash our hands after using the toilet, I expected to find a receptacle or something for water and some soap on hand as soon as I walked out of the latrine. There was none.
I was flabbergasted and disappointed. I had hoped that this poor school in rural Uganda was walking the talk. The entire village is highly susceptible to water-borne diseases the experts now refer to as NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases), and was the target of some serious programmes run by the Ministry of Health, USAID and RTI International.
The programmes they run are simple but highly effective. Just by getting children to take their preventive medicines seriously, parents to use mosquito nets as mosquito nets rather than as fishing nets, and everyone to use soap as often as possible, the entire community benefits in a massive way. Children spend more time in school, and therefore learn more; more of them therefore end up advancing to higher education, and the economy overall improves because they go out to do more than join the fishing or attendant trades.
The children gathered outside the latrine realised what my problem was, and pointed at a contraption that I had seen but failed to figure out as I walked past it to the latrines.
The initially confounding contraption
It was a wooden stand of poles set at four angles forming a square, with some 3-litre jerrycans tied to a wire going round the top. The jerry cans were recycled from used vegetable oil ones – as well do in our homes – and most of them contained a little water.
What puzzled me was a string tied to each jerry can, that was linked to a piece of wood hanging down to the floor. One child, eventually identified as Joshua, stepped forward to free me of my conundrum, and pointed at one jerry can, then the stick.
I had already seen them, but did not wish to be rude, so I leaned forward and tipped the jerry can with one hand to wash the other, but before switching he shouted, “No!” and gave me a demonstration that almost blew my mind.
The way it works is that you step on the stick with one foot (you can’t use both), which action pulls onto the string and tips the jerry can downwards to pour water out for you (or the children) to wash hands.
To complicate matters a little bit, the jerry can I used had a couple of holes punched into it near its mouth top, which made for a nice trickle from the perforation. But the water quickly gushed out after that through the top of the jerry can.
The children were pleased at how surprised I was, and laughed quite a lot as I made them demonstrate again and again. On Twitter, I asked if anyone could work it out from the photograph and found that some people knew about this system – called the ‘Tippy Tap’.
I haven’t checked to find out where it was invented or who by. It is just amazing. A water delivery system made only from local and recycled materials.
I’ve built a house before and know quite well how expensive it is to get all the plumbing into place and running fine, but the next house I am involved in will definitely benefit from the tippy tap though in an advanced form.
There must be an engineer in Uganda who can make some improvements to the system so that we can adopt it in homes both urban and rural. By just putting a cover onto the small jerry can, for instance, one can use less water to wash one’s hands. Now if an engineer worked at combining a rain water catchment system with a series of filters and some tippy tap for the showers and basins, the imagination boggles!

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