CAIRO-The air is rank with the smell of trash in Cairo’s Garbage City. But behind a gate and at the end of a long walkway leading away from the alleys lined with bags of garbage, a courtyard is filled with trees that clean the air.
Inside one of the workshops framing the open space, Safaa Latif stands at a loom, bringing the shuttle down hard to push the weft through the warp. A fabric is being born: Bright rainbow colors drawn through a pink background will become either a small rug or a purse.
She is one of a group of five women working in this room at a Cairo nonprofit called Association for Protection of the Environment, which helps the women of Cairo’s Garbage City become microentrepreneurs. Paid by the piece, they share a large portion of their sales with the nonprofit, which also runs a retail shop.
On the streets outside, garbage has turned into gold for their marginalized community . The people who sort trash by hand, picking out the valuable cardboard, plastic and metal, are able to recycle four times more than conventional waste management companies, based on reports by international agencies. The lure of that life is strong– it’s difficult and dirty, but it’s profitable. The women in the nonprofit are trying to care another path for themselves and their children, who attend an after-school program at the Association.
The people who live and work in Garbage City are called Zabbaleen, which means garbage collectors in Arabic. I took a walk through alleys and amid heaps of bundled and bagged garbage. I listened to the people tell me — through a translator and expert on Egyptian crafts, Khalida Amr Mofeed — that they don’t like being called the Garbage Collectors. So let’s call them the Recyclers. The visit there made me think about Hillbilly Elegy, about the Appalachian community in the United States. On one hand, people have a strong drive to get out — but there are so many factors that keep them in the old way of life, from family ties, to money to the prejudice they face outside.
The Recyclers, estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000, manage about 40% of Cairo’s garbage, an estimated 15,000 tons a day. They recycle 80- 85% of the volume they take into their neighborhood, according to various sources – though how anyone could have effectively estimated the volumes isn’t clear. Conventional waste management companies recycle less than 50% and as low as 20%, though Mother Jones has reported much higher levels in some cities, like San Francisco.
The Recyclers are a community of Coptic Christians who stepped into their place in Cairo society after they emigrated from the south of Egypt to escape, I was told by a tour guide, a life of subsistence farming. The Copts are an early Christian denomination and remain just under 10% of the population of Egypt. The definition of persecuted versus discriminated against is tricky — but many experts say Copts are persecuted in Egypt and that Christians are persecuted today in many countries with a strong current of Islamic extremism.
The Sisi government, reversing years of policy by its predecessors, has begun recognizing the Zabbaleen as serious businesspeople, registering dozens of their enterprises as waste handling companies. The Guardian reported 44 companies had registered in 2013, employing more than 1,000.
The stunning thing is that the Recyclers sort the garbage, which looms in every sight line, by hand. “We have good money,” says a 16-year-old girl, who is standing in the back of a pickup truck. Wearing green knit gloves, she sorts the plastic water bottles out of a bed of trash. She is wearing a bright pink track suit; her dark hair is looped behind her ears and she has a mischievous look. She is not unhappy and not ashamed of what she is doing: she is making that clear. She is also not in school.
Around our feet, there are thousands of flies on the bits of trash that litter the pavement, and children run barefoot over it. The girls who gather around us are dressed in bright colors, their heads uncovered, and I see a gold cross glinting from around the neck of one. A grandmother comes by and asks me to take a picture of the baby she is holding.
The women at the looms inside the Association’s workshops are working on a different life for their children. Using cloth donated by factories, the Association gives them three ways to work: weaving at the looms, patchwork, which is often done at home, and papermaking. About 100 people work here, the nonprofits director of public relations tells us. There are 200 more women producing at home, and there are 250 children in the kids’ club. Latif, for one, has three girls, she explains. Families connected here also have access to the nonprofit’s medical programs, funded by the sales. In Garbage City, there are higher rates of illnesses.
The shop is filled with tourists on an early December day. (Bloomberg just named Egypt one of the 20 top places to visit in 2017; with terrorism now a worldwide risk, Egypt perhaps seems as safe as most other places). Avoiding the areas of Garbage City where most of the processing is done, tourists also visit the Cathedral of St. Simon the Tanner. The Coptic Church built the cathedral in the side of the mountain for the Recyclers; it can seat 20,000.
There are also schools and smaller churches in the community, and some of the Recyclers have graduated, gone on to higher education – and then returned. The profits in garbage are higher than what a teacher or pharmacist could make, one young man tells us. Especially as some of the small companies have begun investing in equipment and as the market for recycled goods has grown, the Recyclers’ companies can be profitable enterprises, enough to fund the purchase of homes outside Garbage City.
At the back of one alley, Amr Shawky Zaky, 30, a father of one, stands next to machinery he uses to flatten cardboard, which he can sell. Two of his employees, Gabriel and Said El Kareem, stand on top of a mountain of flattened boxes, which can be resold outside the city, even to worldwide buyers. Yards away, a small group of goats and dogs stands on a hill of garbage.
A young boy gives us a lift in a tuktuk. He says he is 14, but looks younger. I ask him what he will do as he gets older: Work, he says, but my translator tells me he uses a phrase that signifies fatalism: It doesn’t matter what he does. His shoulders are slumped over the steering wheel, and the tip I give him, a small pile of Egyptian pounds, doesn’t seem to register.
Back at the Association, women at the looms make their bags and sell them for prices ranging from about 40 pounds to a few hundred. In the cheerful shop, I see a bag in the pattern that Latif was making, which she told me was her favorite. It costs 40 Egyptian pounds, which amounts to $2.50. At the loom, it will take her about an hour to make one; in each working day, she might make five or six. Many of the women in the nonprofit are here because they are widowed or their families are struggling.
Latif wraps a scarf around her head, and secures her phone in it, so she can talk and have her free hands for working at the loom. She has three children, she says, three girls: 16, 13 and 9.
Are they in school? I ask. Of course, she answers.