Tackling fear and scepticism: advice and examples from CLTS trainings in South Sudan

14 February 2012

One of the challenges that I often experience when conducting trainings is the fear that CLTS is not an ideal approach for post emergency countries like South Sudan. This fear is commonly expressed by participants attending a training for the first time. Most of the time this objection is made in good faith, but it generally turns out to be a hypothetical fear, not rooted in any real life experiences in the field.

The common fears include the following, and I would wish to make verbatim quotations from some of the participants:

  • This is South Sudan and you must treat the communities here specially. These are people coming out of a prolonged civil war, and still suffering from trauma. It is very easy for them to start a fight if they realize that you have come to their village to shame and disgust them. We need to tread very carefully here.
  • It will be very difficult to generate discussions about defecation as this is considered a taboo subject in most of the communities in this country. Adults cannot talk about defecation in a public meeting.
  • There is no way the community will accept to use the crude word for shit in their local language. If one uses such a word he will be dismissed as a mad person.
  • The crude word for shit in several languages in this country is ‘Cieth’. This word can only be used to refer the feces of a child and not that of an adult.
  • To be honest with you, I think that CLTS is going to backfire in this country, because it is culturally unfriendly.

Some of the participants are very passionate about these fears to a point that they openly talk against experimenting CLTS in the country. Calming down such fears is very important and critical to the success of CLTS. This is because CLTS cannot take off without competent and confident facilitators who are ready to trigger communities. I have always taken my time to listen to the participants respectfully without judging them. I allow them to openly vent their feelings, but I also facilitate discussions geared towards overcoming such fears. It’s interesting that within the same session, there are always people who are willing to giving CLTS a try, and are able to assure their colleagues that all will be well.

When the participants finally go to the field to conduct the triggering exercises, they are often amazed that their fears don’t come to pass. Instead they encounter communities that are friendly and ready to accommodate new ideas, especially when they realize that it is for their own good.

I can therefore say that most of the times triggering exercises proceed without any major incidents in which the communities reject or are hostile to the CLTS approach. This is contrary to the apprehensions of some of the participants. However, it is also true that we have experienced a few anxious moments during triggering activities. Let me mention a few examples:

In one of the villages where triggering took place, when the community members realized that meeting was heading towards discussing the sanitation situation, some of them walked away. They were overheard saying, ‘these people coming to our village must be failures in life. How can they come here just to talk about defecation? They must have failed in school, and that is why they do this dirty job.’ Another person said to the lady who was facilitating at the time, ‘How do you expect to get married if this is the kind of work that you do? No man can accept your hand in marriage!’ This confirmed the fear that the community was prejudiced against issues to do with sanitation and looked down upon people involved in this kind of work. The facilitators were however, not discouraged with this kind of condescending talk from the community. They took it in their stride and continued with triggering exercise unmoved. Interesting enough, at the end of the triggering session the community seemed to appreciate the work of the facilitators and refused to let them go until they agreed on the way forward for stopping open defecation. Even some of those who had walked away later returned and participated in discussions. One person who was really vocal in criticizing the ‘dirty and useless’ work of the facilitators, and had joined the group that walked away, later returned and positively contributed to the discussions, and was now agitating for the construction of latrines. He even swore that he was going to be the first person to construct his latrine. When later the village was visited for follow up, it was confirmed that he had indeed started digging his pit.

In another village, as it is done during CLTS triggering, one of the facilitators collected faeces and brought it to the meeting place. This terribly annoyed the community members present, with the area sultan (Chief) saying, ‘We cannot allow you to do such a thing! You are a person from this community and you know what you are doing is against our customs. How can you dare bring faeces in the meeting?’ Another person joined in and said, ‘This is abomination. You cannot bring in human faeces in front of people.’ Soon there was uproar in the meeting with many people raising their voices against bringing feces in a meeting. However, the lady who was facilitating was very calm. She challenged them by asking, ‘If you don’t want to see these faeces, then where do you want me to take them?’ The community kept quiet for a while. Then one of them said, ‘Just put them aside, away from this meeting.’ The faeces were then taken aside, about 5 meters away. The lady facilitator then told the meeting, ‘Okay, we have now taken the faeces away, and it seems to us that we are not wanted in this meeting. We are now going to pack our things and leave!’ This elicited immediate protest from the community. ‘No! No! No!’ they roared back. ‘You cannot just leave us like that!’ This then led to a discussion where the community collectively accepted to stop open defecation, and elected a committee to spearhead the process. The important lesson learnt here is that sometimes community can get agitated during a triggering exercise, however, having a skilled and calm facilitator is very helpful in calming down potentially volatile situations.

I have always been moved to see the transformation that some of the participants go through after participating in practical CLTS triggering. It is truly inspiring to see people who were opposed to CLTS becoming CLTS champions after seeing how it works in the field. Let me also give a few verbatim quotations from participants who have become CLTS converts after attending a training.

‘I am happy to learn that CLTS triggering is possible even in a culturally conservative community like the Dinka.’

‘I feared that the community would get provoked and chase us away from the village. This never happened. Instead they were very friendly.’

‘When we started the workshop I feared that this approach was going to fail. I am surprised that it worked so well. I feel this is a very interesting approach.’

‘I am one of those who had doubts in the approach. I was sure it was going to fail. I am now convinced that it is the best methodology for sanitation intervention. When I go back to my duty station I will discuss with my supervisor that we adopt it immediately. The approach that we currently use of walking from door to door urging people to construct latrines is time consuming and ineffective. I like CLTS because it is able to mobilize entire villages to collectively start constructing latrines. This saves time and is able to achieve quicker results.’

I would wish to conclude by providing the following tips to any trainer who is undertaking CLTS training but is facing resistant from trainees/staff due to fear of the approach.


  • The trainer should exude calm and confidence in order to inspire the same in others.
  • Allow the trainees to freely express their fears and apprehensions without judging them.
  • Throw the ball back to them, by encouraging them to brainstorm on what they would do, should a community become ‘agitated’.
  • Assure them that CLTS has been tried in many different countries with diverse cultures but there have been no reported incidents of violent reaction from the communities.
  • Encourage the trainees to stay calm and confident, and all will be okay.

Philip Otieno works for Plan Kenya and is an experienced CLTS trainer who has conducted CLTS trainings in Kenya, Uganda, DRC and South Sudan.