Cleanliness and Godliness

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In the developing world 2 million children die each year because of bacterial infections and the resulting diarrhea and dehydration. Tragically just about all of those deaths are among toddlers. The absence of clean water and adequate sanitation systems are major contributors to these completely preventable deaths, but another basic toward keeping a home relatively bacteria free is something anyone in the affluent world surely takes for granted: soap.

​In those parts of the world where the majority of the people subsist on $1 or $2 a day, 25 cents for a bar of soap can seem a foolish luxury, when money is better spent, in fact must be spent on food. But when children are unable to clean their hands for days, even weeks, it’s easy for them to become ill from the filth they encounter and pass into their mouths. Intestinal distress that could be easily treated in the affluent world can be a death sentence in the developing world.

A simple bar of soap could literally be a life saver. ​CNN tells the story of Derreck Kayongo of Uganda, a visitor to the United States, amazed to discover during a hotel stay that each morning a new bar of soap reappeared magically in his bathroom no matter how little used was the previous day’s bar of soap.

Kayongo realized this sleight of hand occurred each night in thousands of hotels across America. The waste this represented was astounding enough to Kayongo, but when he realized what a powerful resource these throwaway bars of soap could prove back in Africa or in South America, Haiti, any place people were too poor to properly clean up before meals, he knew he had to do something about it.

​As a child and teenager, Kayongo had endured the ravages of Idi Amin’s homicidal reign and witnessed firsthand the poverty and desperation of life as a refugee in Kenya. He knew that people became ill because they were too poor to afford soap; they were certainly too poor to seek treatment at a hospital after they became ill.

He began the Global Soap Project in 2009 in Atlanta, working with local hotels. He acquired the castway bars, santizied, repackaged them and shipped them off for redistribution among the poor. Just two years later the project has distributed 100,000 bars of soap in nine countries. His network now includes 300 hotels across the United States.

Seems a trivial thing, saving bars of discarded soap, and it is. But the impact it has is far from trivial. It restores a modicum of dignity to the world’s poorest people and offers a commonplace of cleanliness for their children that is saving lives every day. E.F. Shumacher would be well pleased by this small, beautiful effort.