“A tandas needs ingenuity, teamwork and passion.”

19th September 2017

We entered Kampung Pandan the only way viable: by boat. Gliding down the river, aglow in the morning sun, our journey was shouldered by steep sandy banks and overhung by blooms of bamboo thickets. Stepping off that boat into that village, I had very little building experience. I knew how to hold a hammer or dig a hole. But to assemble a functional and sustainable tandas, let alone a gravity fed piping network, would be nothing short of incredible. We weren’t master architects or hardened labourers, we were a team of young volunteers and passionate village locals doing our best.

Building a tandas is a step-by-step process. You cannot attach the door before the frame is built, or bury the septic tank prior to digging its hole.  I could give you a detailed description of how we built our tandas, one step at a time. But as I’ve learnt, this is not how you build anything. No amount of staring and scrutinizing a detailed guide will transform a slab of land into a toilet. The act of building requires more than instructions and supplies, it requires hard working, dedicated people.

Venturers putting together a tandas


On day two we had to move ten 50kg bags of cement and an equivalent of sand from the riverbank uphill to the worksites. Aside the burly Pandan locals, we were a bunch of scrawny school graduates who struggled to lift half that weight. We had the choice to grit our teeth, throw 50kg over our backs, and storm that hill.  From wood, paracord and other resources at hand, Ben, Will and I fashioned a stretcher for carrying heavy materials through rough terrain, conserving precious time and energy. During phase, I learnt building takes moments of ingenuity. You can’t always stick to rules. We used rope-drawn buckets to extract dirt, mugs to drain water from concreted holes, and leaves to collect falling paint.

I think digging a hole is fun because you can physically witness your progress. But, also, because it is much easier when the task is performed as a group! Every action on the worksite: trimming timber, gluing pipes, swivelling the septic tank, requires a helping hand or second opinion. Alone, the project would take weeks. As a team, it took under five days. When a team works together, combines their strengths, values one another, the improbable becomes reality. We built toilets, dams, fed pipes to doorsteps! It’s not easy to work efficiently with the same people for three weeks and have very few arguments. I owe this chemistry to our daily meetings, huddling around that outdoor table, shirts still soaked in sweet and stained in mud. We’d check in on each other, assess progress, share stories, plan ahead, pull jokes and laugh.

Stepping into the boat back from Pandan, I was a changed person. My hands were callused and I knew many new things. I knew how to build a tandas. I knew that it takes following a step-by-step process and applying amounts of timber, concrete, sand, and corrugated iron. And I knew it takes much more than that. A tandas needs ingenuity, teamwork and passion. Anything is achievable if you work together, use your head, and give it your all! The Community Phase was an unforgettable experience. We helped supply a clean and reliable water solution to the lovely people of Pandan, making their life easier. As much as it will affect them, it will affect us. We have dirt under our fingernails, teamwork in our minds, and a sea of passion flooding our hearts.

Words by Liam

Photos by Saoirse

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Malaysian Borneo