Cleaning Cairo, but Taking a Livelihood

Cleaning Cairo, but Taking a Livelihood

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
New York Times
Published: May 24, 2009


CAIRO — The garbage collectors of Cairo live in neighborhoods spilling over with trash. The children play with the trash and in the trash, when they are not helping to sort or collect the trash. The women sit right in the trash, picking out rotten food with their hands and tossing it to their pigs, which live right there in the neighborhood with them.

It is a world of shocking odors and off-putting sights. But it is their world, the world of the zabaleen, hundreds of thousands of people who have made lives and a community by collecting Cairo’s trash and transforming it into a commodity.

It is their very identity, and they are afraid the government is going to take it away.

“It is not a job, it is a life,” said Isat Naim Gindy, grandson of one of Cairo’s original zabaleen, who now runs a nonprofit organization to help educate the children of garbage collectors.

The beginning of what they fear is the end started with the government’s reaction to news that a swine influenza was spreading around the world. Egypt decided to kill all its pigs, about 300,000, although there have been no cases of swine flu in Egypt. International agencies quickly criticized the authorities, saying that pigs were not spreading the illness.

But Egypt did not stop the huge pig cull. The government promised it would be a humane process, butchering the pigs according to Islamic law and then freezing the meat. But reporters for an Egyptian newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, followed trucks that carried the pigs to a garbage dump. As they filmed, workers used a front-end loader to drop piles of live animals into huge dump trucks. They documented piglets being stabbed and tossed into piles, large pigs beaten with metal rods, their carcasses dumped in the sand.

The savagery of the cull prompted an outcry in Egypt and around the world. But the killing never stopped.

The government said that it was no longer acting just to prevent swine flu, but that it was carrying out part of a plan to clean up the zabaleen, to finally get them to live in sanitary conditions. Egypt has tried this before. Several years ago the government tried to hire private companies to collect the trash. But the waste of Cairo overwhelmed the private companies, and little changed for the zabaleen.

“We want them to live a better life, humanely treated; it’s a very difficult life,” said Sabir Abdel Aziz Galal, chief of the infectious disease department in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Then the government came up with a new strategy: take away the pigs.

The zabaleen are Christians. Egypt is a majority Muslim country. The zabaleen are convinced that the government wants to use the swine flu scare not to help improve their lives but to get pigs out of Egypt. Islam prohibits eating pork.

“The bottom line is pigs are not welcome in Egypt,” said the Rev. Samaan Ibrahim, a priest in one of the largest zabaleen neighborhoods in Cairo.

But what are the zabaleen supposed to do with all the rotting organic waste that used to be fed to the pigs? They have goats, but not nearly enough.

“They expect me to pay to have a carter take this away,” said Faris Samir, 22, whose extended family of 33 men, women and children lost their income when the police came and forced them to give up their 125 pigs. “Forget it. I will throw it anywhere.”

As is often the case in Egypt, this crisis started with a decision that came unexpectedly, without consultation, and without consideration for how drastically it would affect about 400,000 people in zabaleen families.

The zabaleen and their supporters argue that if the people of Cairo could be taught to separate organic and inorganic waste before throwing out their household trash, the problem could be solved. The pigs could be raised in farms outside of the city and the organic waste could be carted out there daily.

But that does not appear to be under consideration.

“They don’t have a good understanding of what this means to the livelihood of the rubbish collectors,” said Syada Greiss, a member of Parliament and chairwoman of the Association for Protection of the Environment, a nongovernmental organization. “The government did not have a full grasp of the economics or social implications.”

Cairo is a sprawling city of about 18 million people. The associations representing the zabaleen say they collect 6,000 tons of trash a day, of which 60 percent is food waste. They say the private carters collect an additional 2,000 tons a day.

The system dates to the late 1940s, when peasant farmers moved to Cairo looking for work. They took over trash collection and became the zabaleen.

It is a family business. In each family, the oldest son gets to go to school. The other boys work, collecting trash while the women and the girls do the sorting.

Basem Masri works. He is a small 11-year-old, with swept-back black hair and very serious eyes. His work day begins at 7 p.m., when he joins his father collecting trash. He works until 3 or 4 a.m., then goes to sleep. At 10 a.m. his mother sends him to a special school for the children of garbage collectors. It is really more of a tutoring program.

“I want to be a doctor someday,” Basem said as he worked on his math skills with a teacher.

That seems like a long shot for Basem, and many others like him. Many here acknowledge that this is a system that is easy to criticize, from the pigs and the unsanitary living conditions to the sight of children hauling trash, their faces smeared and their clothing stained.

But it is how they eat and survive. And it is how they have remained independent of a government they do not trust. They would not object to having the system fixed. They just do not want it wrenched away.

“Maybe the government has noble goals,” said Mr. Gindy, whose nonprofit group runs the school that Basem attends. “But the way they address the problem is not good. The government always says this is the decision and you will follow.”

To Abraham Fahmi, a local Coptic priest, it comes down to a simple matter. “If you move the garbage, you will kill the entire neighborhood,” he said. “This is their lives.”


Samer al-Atrush contributed reporting.


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