The title of this blog post is a household motto chez Shah.

This is how it was born.

When we lived in Era, part of my job meant that I had to do observations in randomly chosen squares, some of which were covered in forest. I had a GPS device that would allow me to see where I needed to be and sometimes my allocated square was tantalisingly near, even though all I could see was thick vegetation between me and it. On one such day I had little time to spare and decided to take – well, make, really – a shortcut. Over an hour later I was still wandering lost in the forest, shouting out for anyone who might be able to hear me and trying to place the direction and distance of the occasional voices I heard. A GPS is not much use when it can only tell you your coordinates. Eventually I used the age old trick of finding a stream and following it downstream until it came to somewhere I recognised, where I emerged, covered in scratches and bruises and having lost any chance to do those observations that day. To my shame, I got lost more than once before the phrase “a shortcut is a misery cut” became a personal mantra of sorts, but it wasn’t until The Great Unblocking Incident that the phrase was established – nay, seared – into our family life.

Lady looking at vegetation in forest

Photo via

We had a cat in Era, gifted to us in anticipation of the problems with mice or rats we were likely to face. This cat was dearly loved but unfortunately also highly prone to regressions in her toilet training development. We also had a kitchen covered in dry grass (like hay) upon which we and our friends would sit to prepare food, socialise and relax around the open fire we cooked on. Sadly, the combination of our seating arrangements and our cat led to a couple of unfortunate incidents such as guests sitting down to relax – on poo.

Consequently, during each of these regressions, we spent a good number of miserable minutes each day scanning our grass floor for any of our dear cat’s deposits and disposing of them appropriately. It was like our entire kitchen had become one big litter box inside which we lived and breathed and had our being.

in kitchen with dry grass on floor

Hanging out in our kitchen come litter box. Photo by Jock Hughes

On one of these days Aaron, weary and frustrated, found another lot of poop covered in dry grass to be disposed off, and not wanting to go outside in the cold, muddy, wet  night to tramp through our vegetable garden and throw it over the fence, he decided to take a shortcut and flush it down the loo.

At this point, a little more background is needed. Our toilet , also generously gifted to us by a friend, was an old ceramic toilet basin hooked up to a large pipe which led into a massive earth hole, covered in wooden planks, which were in turn covered with more earth, over which our vegetable garden grew, and it had all been built and set up for us by friends (as houses in Era are traditionally toilet-free). It was flushed by pouring scoops of water down it. As the only sit down toilet we knew of within several hours walk, we saw it as quite a luxury (even before we were gifted the real luxury of a toilet seat!), and into this luxury the poopy dry grass went on that fateful day.

The dry grass blocked the toilet (and thus sanketh our hearts).

First, we tried unblocking the toilet with water, in increasingly quantities and with increasing degrees of force. We soon advanced to sticks, which were used in all manner of imaginable ways in service of our aims, but to no avail. One desperate day a human arm was used as an unblocking tool, though unsuccessfully, I’m sad to report.

Our efforts increased: I came home from work one day to discover that Aaron had dug up part of our vegetable garden, to uncover the planks which covered the hole into which the sewage pipe no longer flowed . Perhaps the block was at the other end, he surmised. It will help you to understand the degree of his commitment when you remember what was in the pit he was about to open up (though, see also “a human arm was used…”). The pit was opened, the pipe was prodded and poked, and the journey between the toilet and the back fence which Aaron had so eagerly avoided on that dreary night was made multiple times, but still the toilet remained stubbornly blocked and unusable.

Men digging hole in earth.

Our sewage hole being dug. At the time the plan was never to see the inside of this hole again. Photo from my personal collection.

Every passing day brought a new attempt. “Perhaps,” went one day’s thought, “a light tap with a hammer on the now visible parts of the pipe will dislodge the block.” Sadly, this method proved as ineffective as the rest in solving our problem but it did create another  – a light tap was enough to break a fairly large hole in the pipe. Now we had a blocked toilet and a leaking sewage pipe. Resourceful as ever, we tried to tape up the hole (we didn’t have a lot of resources, OK?!) but of course it was too wet to stick. Aaron found a large peanuts’ packet from our last visit to town that we hadn’t yet burned, and as this was both water resistant and large enough to cover the leak, he patched up the leak with it and packed mud and earth in all around to hold it in place. This was successful, though the toilet remained unblocked.

We resigned ourselves to a trip to town to buy a plunger, but weren’t able to go immediately as getting to town involved a good hour and a half’s hike in the early morning to catch a ride in a 4 x 4 that could make the two and a half to three hour drive to town. When we finally made it, we set off optimistically for the shops, but soon discovered that our woes were not yet over. Nobody but nobody stocked a toilet plunger, it seemed. We traipsed around shop after shop, engaging in amusing conversations explaining the nature of a toilet plunger to those who couldn’t seem to conceive of what we were looking for, but ended up going home empty-handed.

The eminently practical and experienced missionaries who lived in a village a couple of hours away from Era were our last hope, and sure enough when Aaron was next over there for a meeting he explained our dilemma and came back with both a plunger and a ‘snake’ – both tools designed for the express purpose of solving problems like ours. At last!

Little did we know there were many days yet to come of knocking on our (mercifully very close) neighbours’ door and asking to be invited in to the only other house with a toilet that we knew of. Plunging became a daily habit, but still the block refused to shift. The extra long snake was also used multiple times but in the end it was the plunger which won the day. Aaron got the idea to plunge repeatedly without a break and did so about twenty times before he finally heard the sweet, sweet sound of massive suction and knew that The Great Unblocking Incident had finally had its day.

Rachel with cat

I love you, kitty, even though you are a poop machine. Photo by Jock Hughes

So it was that we found a touchstone for motivation to which we can go back every time we wish to take a shortcut, be it literal or metaphorical.  So it was we learned that a shortcut – be it poop related, forest related or indeed just part of everyday work and relationships – is in fact a misery cut.

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