Monday, March 29, 2010

Remember the outskirts of Cairo when visiting the wonders of Eygpt.

Cairo, Egypt for someone like me (an archaeologist) it draws thoughts of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the ancient Mosques of Old Cairo, and the Saladin Citadel (El-Qalaa). The land of ancient Egypt is breathtaking and magical, but I am reminded that it must always be balanced with the knowledge of the people who built the amazing world of the Egyptians, the working class/slaves. Like many great structures and societies all over the world, ancient Egypt was built by thousands of  'lower class' workers/slaves who struggled for decades in the extreme heat and harsh conditions. They worked for rulers like Khufu, Khafre, and Tutankhamen to insure their own survival and the survival of their families. Now, although some 4000+/- years separate the present from Ancient Egypt's past it is important to be reminded of places located away from the tourist spots and rich cultural attractions. We must look at the outskirts of Cairo. 

With a population of 18 million, Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, has no sanitation service. For generations, the city's residents have relied on 60,000 Zaballeen, or "garbage people," to pick up their trash. In the movie Garbage Dreams an independent film with over 20 awards this year is airing PBS in April ( The film follows the Zaballeen collection of over 3,000 tons a day of garbage. Hauling the trash back to their villages they are the world's most effective and successful recycling program. Paid only a minimal amount by residents for their garbage collection services, the Zaballeen survive by recycling. While Western cities boast only a 30% recycling rate, the Zaballeen recycle 80% of all the waste they collect. 

The Zaballeen, who mostly belong to Egypt's minority Coptic Christian community, were originally poor and illiterate farm laborers. Drive out of the rural south due to a lack of work, these disadvantaged farmers saw Cairo's trash as an economic opportunity. They have created a recycling model that costs the state nothing, recycles so much waste and employees tens of thousands of Cairo's poorest. The Zaballeen earn little, but in a country where almost half of the population survives on less than $2 a day, it is a livelihood. 

Then in 2005, following the international trend to privatize services (think Iraq war) the city of Cairo sold $50 million in annual contracts to 'three' private companies (two from Italy and one from Spain) to pick up Cairo's garbage. Their giant waste trucks now line the streets, but the irony is that their contract only obligates them to recycle 20% of what they collect, leaving the rest to rot in the giant landfills. As foreign workers came in with wast trucks and began carting garbage to nearby landfills, 60,000 Zaballeen saw their way of life disappearing. 

The movie Garbage Dreams is stunning and should be seen by all, especially if you are planning to go to Egypt anytime soon.

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