Archive for July, 2010

Just looking out of my window today I saw these two having a conversation…

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission


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Life works in funny ways; in an attempt to track down the artist about whom I wrote in  ‘Bread, art and politics’ I ended up with my own photography exhibition opening next wednesday 28th July at El Balad Gallery for contemporary and visual arts here in Cairo.

I’ve always been fascinated by photography and its power to convey a story by just one single image. Photos are capable of touching the viewer profoundly and some of my favourite photographers who have mastered this ability are Elliot Erwitt, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier Bresson. The main themes of my photos revolve around farming and livestock. This specific interest was developed through my work with farmers and livestock keepers either as part of my vocational training or as a researcher and consultant for NGOs, donor agencies, research institutes and UN organizations. The human-animal relationship has been a long time interest to me. In many cultures animals have multiple functions and their importance goes far beyond that of providing its owner with income. My studies and work have often focussed on human-animal interactions and the value of animals in contributing towards people’s socio-economic and cultural well-being. This human-animal interaction is something I’ve been trying to capture through photography. More recently I’ve been experimenting with high speed photography and HDR (high dynamic range) photography and I’ve also taken an interest in photographing old abandoned buildings; I find it a challenge to capture the timeless and eerie atmosphere present in these buildings.

The title of the exhibition refers both to the masterpiece of the exhibition – a monochrome panoramic view of the city of Rome – but also to the meaning of panorama in the sense of giving an overview. This exhibition presents a diverse selection of some of my favourite photos.

The oldest photo presented here is from 1996 and was taken on El Clarin, a  farm in Martinez de laTorre in Veracruz, Mexico; I was a trainee at this farm for 7 months.

There will be several photos of Raika pastoralists. The Raika are one of the largest groups of livestock herders inhabiting the western districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, including the great Thar Desert. The Raika have developed their own system of animal healthcare making use of plant, animal and mineral based remedies, conventional drugs and traditional healers. I spent 8 months in Rajasthan studying the traditional animal healthcare system of the Raika.

The exhibition also shows several photos taken in Cambodia; I worked here in 2008 as a consultant for FAO studying the socio-economic impact of bird flu. The selection of photos from Cambodia both include more touristy type of scenes as well as photos taken during my work with farmers.

Other countries represented in this exhibition include Bangladesh, Cameroon, Greece and Egypt. The two landscape photos were taken in 2008 on a holiday in Norway.

The latest photo was taken in July 2010 at Mokattam mountain, Manshiyet Nasser on the outskirts of Cairo; an area referred to as the largest ‘garbage city’ in the world. Here the Zabaleen (garbage collectors) make a living out of collecting, sorting and recycling garbage.

A monochrome panorama photo shows a view of the city of Rome; a city I lived in for about 3 years and which served as the base from which I would be sent out to some of the different countries represented in this exhibition.

An announcement was made in Bikyamasr; an Egyptian and regional independent news site ttp://bikyamasr.com/wordpress/?p=14920

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Last Wednesday I visited Mokattam, an area on the outskirts of Cairo. Here the Zabaleen reside. The Zabaleen community counts 60.000 people, the vast majority (95%) are Coptic Christians and the remaining part (5%) are Muslim. The Zabaleen – meaning garbage people – derive their main income from garbage collection, garbage sorting and garbage recycling. The Zabaleen inhabit several areas on the outskirts of Cairo, among these are Tora, Katameya and Mokattam. Mokattam is the largest area and it is often referred to as the largest ‘garbage city’ in the world.

I was curious to see the area myself and to talk to some people especially after seeing the documentary ‘Garbage Dreams’ by Mai Iskander.

‘Filmed over four years, GARBAGE DREAMS follows three teenage boys born into the Zaballeen’s trash trade: 17-year-old Adham, 16-year-old Osama, and 18-year-old Nabil. Laila, a community activist who also teaches the boys at their neighbourhood Recycling School, guides the boys as they transition into adulthood at a time when the Zaballeen community is at a crossroads.’ (Independent Lens 2010)

I was eager to know how the Zabaleen have coped with the loss of their pigs little over a year ago when the government decided to cull them in an attempt to control swine flu (H1N1).

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Mokattam was that the streets are buzzing with energy; pick-up trucks and donkey carts driving off and on loaded with unsorted and sorted garbage; people sorting through heaps of plastic bottles; men cutting cans to separate the more valuable lid from the rest of the can; women removing copper from discarded electrical appliances; plastic being shredded and washed, the list goes on and on. Beyond the dirt and chaos that is apparent at first sight one also finds a highly organized and efficient community.

Street view of Mokattam where the vast majority of the community is involved in the garbage trade

Women sorting and packing plastic bottles

On average the Zabaleen collect about 4.000 ton of waste per day. The Zabaleen have developed an amazingly efficient system; more than 80% of garbage is recycled according to the people I spoke to. (In comparison, the multinational companies only recycle 20% as mentioned in the documentary). The efficiency of the Zabaleen is rooted in the fact that every single piece of garbage is handled manually and even the smallest pieces are sorted and recycled. Garbage contains both non-organic and organic waste, the latter making up about 55% of the total garbage collected by the Zabaleen. In order to make use of the organic waste about 80% of Zabaleen were keeping pigs.  But then the outbreak of swine flu moved the Egyptian government to pre emptively cull all 300.000 pigs. The culling was not without resistance; dreading the loss of their pigs and with that food and income, Zabaleen community members clashed with the police. Their protests were in vain and they were forced to give up their pigs. The pigs had to be brought to a specific area which the government had designated as the culling and disposal site. Some pigs were beaten to dead, stabbed to dead or even buried alive. All houses were searched to make sure no pigs were left alive; some Zabaleen had attempted to hide their pigs to avoid culling.  Sows and piglets were disposed of by burying them and no compensation was received for these animals. The Zabaleen were partially compensated for the loss of their male pigs; 40EGP was received for each one of them. These pigs were not buried but loaded on government trucks and sold according to one informant.

The total number of pigs before the culling took place was about 300.000. The number of pigs each household would keep was dependant on the amount of garbage they would collect (i.e. organic waste to feed the pigs) and the space they would have to keep the pigs.   The number could vary between 10 and 100. The pigs provided income and a year-round meat supply to the families. Normally the biggest share of income was derived from garbage sorting and selling, but sometimes when prices of goods would go down the pigs provided a good buffer. Depending on the weight a medium sized pig would usually fetch about 100-150EGP (6EGP per kilo life weight).  One of the families I spoke to used to have 70 pigs, once a year they would sell about 30 pigs to a factory producing ham or to a butcher. This would provide them with 3000 to 4500 EGP.

Apart from the culling of their pigs the Zabaleen also had to deal with new regulations that forbid them to collect the garbage in Cairo city as the government, in an attempt to upscale the garbage collection in Cairo, contracted big multinational companies to take care of garbage collection. Before the multinationals came, households all over Cairo would pay the Zabaleen a small fee to collect the garbage from their door step. With the coming of the multinational companies the government imposed a monthly fee of 3EGP which is added to the electricity bill to cover for part of the costs.   However, many multinational companies have failed and left the country leaving only two companies behind charged with the impossible task of collecting all the garbage. The companies basically only collect garbage disposed in garbage bins and they sweep the street. Some Zabaleen have been integrated into the multinational waste management system; the Zabaleen are allowed to collect and keep the garbage in exchange for their garbage collection services, they do not receive any salary for their work. In addition many households have ceased to pay the Zabaleen a collection fee because they are already paying a monthly fee of 3EGP. Garbage collection without licence is still forbidden and the only way for the Zabaleen to collect garbage is to be incorporated within the multinational companies or risk fines and collect the garbage illegally.

Many Zabaleen have thus been cut off from their garbage supply and the few that have managed to work with the multinational companies find it far less lucrative now as it used to be.

One family I spoke to used to collect and sort garbage. It was good to collect all sorts of material like copper, aluminium, plastic, cloth or paper as prices could sometimes be volatile. They would sell those materials that would fetch a good price and store those of which prices were low until demand and prices were up again.   After the pigs were culled and the multinational companies came this family stopped collecting garbage. Instead they invested their money into a shredding machine and they buy plastic waste which they then shred and wash. This has been a lucrative strategy and they have managed to make more money now than they used to before.

Other families have followed this example and buy raw material by the kilo, shred it, wash it and then make items such as clothes hangers which they sell per piece. Raw material is bought from people working on garbage dump sites and from garbage collectors and scavengers.

One other far less fortunate couple is having a hard time, particularly as a consequence of the loss of their pigs. The pigs provided savings for their two sons (26 and 28) so they could get married, with the loss of the pigs they can no longer save and the sons are now reaching an age where it will be very difficult to get married. This is a very big burden and cause of stress in the family. Judging from their living conditions – a 6m2 room with dirt floor and no connection to electricity – they do not have the means to invest in a shredding machine and have a hard time even getting enough food for themselves. The food they are able to obtain on a daily basis however can’t be prepared because they were out of fuel for their one pit stove.

Most Zabaleen want to have pigs again but there are no pigs left in Egypt and it depends on the government to import them I was told. Some have started to keep goats and to a lesser extent sheep. These are not as efficient as the pigs in recycling the organic waste but they make use of at least part of the organic waste and people earn an income from selling live animals as well as having animals for home consumption.

Flats in Mokattam are often used as a storage space. Here thousands of plastic bottles await packing and shipping, while the top floor of the flat is being used as a shelter for sheep and goats.

I’ve learned so much in just 5 hours at Mokattam and I am amazed at how versatile this community is. However some families seem to suffer serious hardship due to the loss of their income source and their main assets. With hardly any income and no means to buy enough healthy food in combination with the unsanitary conditions these families are highly vulnerable to diseases and might end up trapped in a vicious cycle of increasing poverty.

I’ve chosen this image –the street view with roof tops pilled with garbage - because it tells so much more than might appear at first glance. Some of the words that might come to mind observing this photo probably include such words as chaos, dirt or poverty. Although undoubtedly these words do describe the circumstances in which the Zabaleen are living looking at it from one point of view, I also see versatility. Regardless of their circumstances people try and make the best of their lives. What most of us value in life is quite universal; to enjoy the company of loved ones and to be able to have fun. This photo reflects both these values: a few friends have gathered and are chatting with each other, but I especially love the scene of the boy hanging upside down swaying on an improvised swing made out of waste material.

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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Bread, art and politics; how can these be possibly related? Somehow they are I found out a few days ago. I already knew that bread and politics are closely linked in Egypt as supplying cheap bread has been a key principle of government policy for decades as it is regarded crucial for ensuring social stability. Bread is the cheapest as well as most important food item in Egyptian diets.

Since WWII Egypt has provided basic necessities such as vegetable oil, kerosene, sugar, bread and tea to its population as a way to assist the people with coping with inflation and scarcity resulting from the war. In the 1960s and 1970s the food subsidy system expanded and became part of broader social welfare programs which included subsidies for non-food items and services such as transport, housing, soap and cigarettes. Where under Nasser government spending on consumer subsidies was modest, under Sadat the share of government spending on subsidies accounted for 14% of total government expenditures in 1981 and included as much as 18 food commodities. As part of the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program (ERSAP) there was a sharp decrease in consumer subsidies between 1990 and 1994 and the establishment of a free exchange market. However, the subsidy on bread was not removed and is still heavily subsidised today.

A man carrying bread from the bakery to the subsidized bread shop

Here people are buying bread at one of the government subsidized bread stalls. Bread is being spread on the car to cool down as it comes straight from the bakery around the corner.

Men waiting for their bread to cool down

Two girls catching up while waiting for their bread to cool down

Two thirds of Egyptians eat subsidised bread and the state meets 96% of the cost. About 85% of Egypt’s bread is said to be subsidised, this equals about 230 million loaves a day. I normally buy three loafs of unsubsidised bread at the local bakery for 1 Egyptian pound (EGP) (equal to US$0.18 or €0.14); subsidised bread only costs  5 piaster a piece so 15 piaster for 3 loafs of bread (equal to US$0.026 or €0.021). This makes subsidised bread seven times cheaper than unsubsidised bread. This raises questions about the long term economic sustainability of the subsidy system and also raises questions about vulnerability to the c word which I should probably not mention here (the word ends with orruption…). However making changes to this subsidy system in a country where 40% of the population live on less than $2 a day can create volatile situations. This fragile state became visible in April 2008 when bread shortages, as a result of the surge in food prices, sparked civil unrest. Some people lost their lives and many were wounded.

What has art got to do with this? I haven’t quite found out the details yet but I came across this piece of art when I visited the 33rd General Exhibition 2010 in the Palace of Arts here in Cairo.

As you can see it depicts Egyptians from different social classes all over Egypt. Laid out in front of them are hundreds of loafs of bread or Baladi Aish as they’re called here; the type of bread that is subsidised and distributed by the government. Clearly the artist had some sort of socio-political commentary. Unfortunately I can only guess as to what his or her reasons are for making this piece of art. There was no name tag or a description of the work to be found. But I am determined to find out more about this piece of work and the artist who made it as I’m eager to get an insider’s view on this issue. As soon as I’ve managed to find out more about the artist and the meaning of his/her work I will share it here.

To be continued…

Sources I used for this blog:

Allam, A. and D. Williams. (2008). “Egypt’s Rising Food Prices Swell Bread Lines, Deficit.”   Retrieved 26 May, 2009, from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601110&sid=amxCfY1PA_ek.

EIU (2008). Egypt Country Profile 2008. London, Economist Intelligence Unit.

Gutner, T. (1999). The Political Economy of Food Subsidy Reform in Egypt, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

ISFP (2009). Country responses to the food security crisis: Nature and preliminary implications of the policies pursued. M. Demeke, G. Pangrazio and M. Maetz. Rome, Agricultural Policy Support Service, Food and Agriculture Organization.

McGreal, C. (2008). “Egypt: bread shortages, hunger and unrest.”   Retrieved 1 July, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/may/27/food.egypt.

Slackman, M. (2008). “Egypt’s Problem and Its Challenge: Bread Corrupts.”   Retrieved 1 July, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/17/world/africa/17bread.html

All the photos posted on my blog are owned by me and they should not be used without my permission

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