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Published: June 21st 2009
Moqattam (Zaballeen community)
Photo from: Privilege Tactics (http://privilegedtactics.net/pt2/zaballeen.html)
About two months ago, I made a site visit to the Zaballeen Community. Zaballeen means garbage collectors/people in Arabic. I went along with two AUC students, who are a part of the program that I manage. The students in the program must partner with an NGO/CBO to work and develop a student led project within the community.
The community lies just outside the city limits of Cairo and has very few visitors. The taxi driver was even unsure of its location and had to stop along the road to ask pedestrians for the right way. Turning onto an unpaved road, we could already see the mounds of garbage piled up. Entering the community I realized the attention that we were receiving from the locals not only because we were strangers but because we were in a yellow cab, the expensive taxis in Cairo.
We were dropped off on the main road of the community, which was a narrow, trash-filled, and unpaved. Millions and billions of flies are sitting on the trash and as you walk past they all scatter away. Apartment buildings are crumbling and pick-up trucks with loads of trash drive through continously. Women and children were sitting barefoot in trash piles and sorting organic and inorganic products with their bare hands. They are interested in the non-organic material, shampoo bottles to be exact, because they sell bottles back to the shampoo companies. This partnership between the Zaballeen and corporate companies was formed because many people were refilling the bottles with imitation shampoos, but selling them under the corporations label - a form of identity fraud. There are over 60,000 people that live in this small community (exact land size unknown), mostly composed of Coptic Christians. According to Garbage Dreams
, a documentary that recently was awarded the Al Gore Reel Award, this is the world's largest garbage village. The people living in the community identify themselves as zaballeen or garbage collectors and they survive by recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect from all around Cairo - probably the most efficient modern 'Green' initiative. The government does not provide the Zaballeen with any support for cleaning the streets of Cairo.
The students and I are visiting to meet with a possible partner NGO, which employs many initiatives. The initiatives we are most interested in are the solar water heaters and the creation of bio-fuel from organic garbage material. Touring the community was truly an eye opening experience for me. It is the poorest and worst living conditions I have ever witnessed. For this reason, I did not take any pictures, because I didn't want to seem disrespectful of the community, when I was there to help create a partnership with the NGO and the Gerhart Center (for pictures perform a Google image search).
My second visit to the community came after the government decided to kill all the pigs in Cairo in response to the increase spread of swine flu
. My response was why is the government making this decision!? Which health officials are they consulting with? Why are they the only country to go to such extremes? The chair of the WHO Advisory Committee on Health Research, is on the Center's (which I work for) advisory board. During our yearly meeting, around the same time the decision to kill all the pigs came out, he expressed outrage for this decision as well. A majority of the pigs in Egypt are located in the Zaballeen community and the Zaballeen rely on the pigs to consume the organic waste which they collect and have no use for. As a result, the business of collecting trash to earn a living has become more expensive because the garbage collectors need to use export the organic matter to a land fill, with charges a fee in addition to the transportation costs. The government should provide some sort of assistance or solution, but as is the case in Egypt, the government does not fill this void. Therefore, NGOs such as the one we are working with take on that responsibility. They are currently looking into creating bio-fuels from the organic matter that is accumulated.
It's also interesting to note the reactions from the locals about swine flu. Several taxis refused to drive to or even near the area, but we finally found one that would drop us off near. Upon arrival, the government set up barricades and had at least 30 soldiers stationed at the entrance of the community, some wearing masks - they weren't there during my first visit. The students I was with were paranoid and verbally expressed that we too, should have worn masks. Walking through the community to get to the NGO's office, there was a pick-up truck that was filled with pigs ready to be taken away and slaughtered. My students were frightened by this sight and ran to the other side of the street because they felt like they would contract swine flu. Needless to say we all survived the visit.
The Ministry of Health and other health organizations should do a better job of disseminating information about swine flu in this part of the world, were there is a negative perception of pigs.
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