Nestled among some of the most awe inspiring architectural wonders of the ancient world, rests an equally incredible point of interest. It’s called Garbage City. However, unlike the pyramids and the Citadel or all the other amazing places that draw tens of thousands of tourists to Egypt every year Garbage City rests ignored, overlooked and undervalued.
Home to over 15,000 Zabbaleen most of whom are Coptic Christians who have migrated from rural Upper Egypt, Garbage City is an area of Cairo where the recyclers and gods of garbage live. Their homes rise out of the mountains of stuff that others living in the more affluent areas of the city no longer want or need. Empty bottles of plastic mingle with unwanted textiles that join forces with the rejected, broken and used up that have been thrown away in piles of shiny black plastic bags that collect along the city roads to be picked up by the recyclers. Until recently organic waste was collected and fed to their pigs that eagerly gobbled up the leftovers that found its way into the rest of the garbage. But unwarranted fears that pigs would increase the threat of outbreaks of Swine Flu lead the mostly Islamic-ruled government to order the slaughter of nearly 300,000 pigs. So, since then organic waste is sorted out at the curbside where the mounds of food garbage and hoards of flies grow daily.
Early one morning in early December I made my way to Garbage City with my colleague and friend who has worked with the Zabbaleen for most of her adult life. She tells me that “A plea at my church to teach literacy classes became my calling.” Her quest in Garbage City that began over 27 years ago led her to start one school and then another and yet a third. As we tour the newest school where young boys are taught how to sort the different types of plastic, weigh the daily “catches” and calculate how much they’ve earned she proudly points to the row of computers where the boys study maps of Cairo in an effort to learn the different collection routes. Others enter their figures into spread sheets that will be used to track their accounts and help calculate their costs and profits. All around the one room school are ingenious instructional materials cleverly made from recycled odds and ends. Blasts of color from teacher-made posters cover the wall and hand-made book shelves nearly groan from the weight of books that line the shelves. All around are groups of students eagerly working together on hands-on activities meant to hone their skills using their hands to collect and sort the garbage. These students who are the latest brood in the generations of recyclers to live in Garbage City and this amazing school bring new meaning in the global efforts to provide an Education for All.
We leave the school and make our way to the different parts of the community. I learn that the area is divided into various recycling areas. Plastics are in one area, textiles another, medical wastes in still another. I also learn that the Zabballan are sorted too by what they do and live in the area where they dump and recycle their different kinds of garbage. Despite laws on how medical wastes are supposed to be discarded facilities ignore the policies and guidelines and recyclers who sort those wastes suffer from a considerably higher prevalence of Hepatitis. I visit a clinic run by community organizers and generous doctors who donate their time and services to those afflicted by this insidious risk of the trade and listen to the community workers who have conducted surveys to identify the sick and offer them medical care and other forms of assistance.
Behind one of the plastic grinding shops that line the streets weaving through the community is a mountain of plastic garbage bigger than a two story house. “That’s my savings account” the young entrepreneur and owner of the mountain of garbage proudly points out. I ask him how long it would take him to grind his way through all that garbage. He ponders a moment making mental calculations and estimates “maybe six months.” If times get lean and he has trouble working his route he figures he can dip into his “savings account” to keep his business going. I can tell how pleased he is of his little financial empire. One of the first students at one of the first schools he worked hard and up through the recycler’s organizational structure to get to where he is now: owns his own dump truck, has his own crew; and owns his own plastic grinding equipment. No matter the machine is home-made and jerry-rigged. It does the job and that’s all that really matters. I look around me and note the bags of finely ground plastic sorted by color mounted high around me sure testimony to the soundness of both his business acumen and his machinery.
As we sit and chat, sharing stories about our lives and our families I notice the pungent odor that permeates the air. I can’t say it’s particularly unpleasant but there’s no doubt it’s overpowering—a constant reminder of where we are: in a sea of garbage and stuff that no one wants but them. I come to the conclusion that despite the grime and filth that pervades their lives there doesn’t seem to be any major frustration or regret over what they have and who they are. Life is what it is. But they do have plans and dreams for things to be better.
My young entrepreneur tells me he has three children and he’s planning to send them all to school—all the way to university–to get a better education than he was able to get. I ask him what he hopes his children will do with their education. Without thinking he blurts out to become a doctor or a lawyer clearly–something that will take them far away from their roots in Garbage City. But then, he stops, stares at his mountain and savings account encompassing the view behind us, shakes his head and tells me, “I want them to be better recyclers.”
Garbage City: a shining star in planet friendly strategies to save the environment. Garbage City: a beacon in the effort to provide a meaningful education to all children. Garbage City: home to the ignored, overlooked and undervalued.