USAID/Egypt – Garbage City Teaches Recycling
CAIRO—The Coptic monastery of St. Samaan overlooks Zabaleen, Arabic for Garbage City, which gets its name from the primary source of income for its 60,000 inhabitants: garbage collection and disposal.
The church carved into the mountain is dedicated to the legend that Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority performed a miracle by moving a mountain by faith to thwart threats of extermination.
“So we can make a mountain move, why can’t we recycle the garbage?” said Ezzat Naem. Naem, 45, grew up in Garbage City. His father was a garbage man. And his grandfather was the city’s first garbage collector. “He was an innovator, like me,” Naem said.
In 2008, USAID awarded Naem a two-year, $34,000 grant to support his creation, a community recycling school. It was one of 22 grants made by the Agency and the Synergos Institute, through the Arab World Social Innovators Program, to support entrepreneurial humanitarian men and women in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Abd Elghany Hamady Barakat, who was born blind into an underprivileged family, seamlessly maneuvers the new American University in Cairo campus. Barakat received a USAID scholarship to attend AUC, where he is majoring in political science and international relations. He said he hopes to start the university’s first club for disabled students.
At the recycling school, students as young as 9 learn Excel, Photoshop, and other computer skills which are part of a real-life recycling business. Students create their own spreadsheets and chart how many bottles they’ve collected, their worth, and their profit.
The school generates about $10,000 annually from recycling products like shampoo bottles. And students learn mathematics, reading, and writing with the goal of starting their own recycling businesses.
Children in Garbage City wake up at 9 p.m. and work with their fathers until 2 a.m. before returning home with recyclables found in Cairo streets. The women work into the morning sorting their finds while their sons attend Naem’s community school.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even know how to write my name, and now I’m doing mathematics, and I know how to use the computer,” said Ibrahim Bakhit, 13, who collects recyclable cardboard with his father at night. “I insist on learning. I want to know a lot of things.”
In addition to garbage sorting, Garbage City residents earn income from pig farming. Pigs consumed 60 percent of organic garbage before Egyptian officials made the animals illegal earlier this year and slaughtered them in a nationwide response to H1N1, also called swine flu, even though there is no evidence the disease is spread by pigs.
Moreover, without pigs to dispose of the waste, trash piled up, causing environmental damage. Incomes were further cut when the Egyptian government contracted three multinational corporations to collect the city’s garbage. But the townspeople found a substitute in recycling.
The school remains largely for boys—following Egyptian cultural standards—but after-hours computer workshops recently began for girls and mothers.
The city smells of garbage. Enormous bags of trash are piled on rooftops, in doorways, in alleyways, and strewn about the streets.
But Naem’s students have seen the alternative.
“We are so happy when we go on field trips, spend time together, and smell fresh air,” said Naem, who kept his hometown and family business secret until he revealed it in a composition that was praised by his teachers. He has since gone on to earn a bachelor’s degree in commerce.
As a 12-year-old, Naem wrote in his composition: “If a minister or the president, himself, is absent for a week, his vice can replace him. But if a garbage collector is absent, no one can replace him.”