Privy Matters

Posted on Posted in Mixed Nuts
by Micheal Sweeney from The Storyboard – Autumn 2003

Whenever you talk to a missionary from Papua New Guinea, regardless of what mission he or she works with, the discussion will eventually come around to the topic of outhouses. You might say that we’re all “privy” to insider information about them.  (Sorry.)

It’s just that outhouses have been responsible for many of our most memorable experiences. Nearly all of them are fun to look back on, although they were rather unpleasant to endure at the time, such as when a python dropped on my wife Linda. But that’s not the story I want to share with you now.

When we moved to the village, one of the challenges we faced was training our two young boys in proper outhouse etiquette. There is one main rule: Always shut the lid. If you don’t, the insect population will quadruple in your area within days. Unfortunately, our boys found this rule too complicated. So in a very short time the ambiance of the little hut degraded severely, and you could hardly fight your way through the flies. Something had to be done.

Being a self-proclaimed inventor, I rigged up a system using string and nails whereby when someone opened the lid, a sign would drop down in front of the door that said, “CLOSE THE LID”. Our 6-year-old, being hooked on phonics, was able to sound out the words and respond accordingly. Our pre-literate 4-year-old, however, simply walked out under the sign – even when I drew a picture on it.

So Mr. Inventor decided that it was time to play hardball. I extended the strings and made it so that whenever someone raised the lid, a board would fall across the outside of the outhouse door, trapping the person inside until he obeyed the sign.

It worked beautifully. For the next several months, our outhouse became a haven of tranquility (except, of course, for the snake that I’m not talking about in this story).

The Haven of Tranquility
The Haven of Tranquility

One day, our older son took a break during school to use the facilities. He seemed to be gone an exceptionally long time. Finally we heard his little voice calling up from the outhouse, “Daddy! Get me out of here! The string broke! I’m trapped! GET ME OUT!”

For some reason, Linda and the kids insisted that I remove the system altogether rather than replace the broken string.


True genius is seldom appreciated by one’s own family.

Mike was a Bible translator for the Mum language group. He also served as PBT’s Assistant Director of Language Affairs. He and his wife Linda lived in the village of Katiati. Their two boys, Christopher and Ryan went to school at the Ukarumpa International High School.

2 thoughts on “Privy Matters

  1. You should ask Fay Christensen of Churches of Christ to describe the use of the ‘bucket toilet’ at Chungribu (before they designed a septic system that would work there. The whole station floods about knee deep when the Ramu comes up (so no pit toilets). I’ll let you use your imagination about trying to hold a bucket in place inside an outhouse in 2 feet of water….. 🙂

  2. Tom, I don’t even have to use my imagination. Fay always had funny stories. I think it was a coping strategy.

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