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.
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.
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.