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The Refuse(d) Communities

by Jeannette Isaac
photos by John Isaac


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The Citadel of Cairo casts an aura of elegance and grace over the city sprawled beneath its fortified walls. Located on the slopes of the Mukattam Hills, it commands a complete view of Cairo and the Nile, and beyond that, even the famous pyramids of Giza.

In the shadows of the Citadel, also in the Mukattam Hills, a community of 50,000 people live beyond another kind of fortified wall. Known as the garbage people of Cairo, they reside behind tenfeet high barricades of wrought tin.

Behind the tin walls are 40-feet mounds of putrefying garbage which stretch as far as the eye can see. Sandy, gently sloping hills have been replaced by mountains of assorted garbage. The stench chokes and gags and is made worse by the unmerciful heat of summer. Flies buzz in one solid mass, forming a tornado-like spiral which attacks everything in sight. Dogs and pigs roam freely along the narrow pathways that have been created from constant use, forming a labyrinth of huts and work areas. Here and there a dead animal can be spotted only haphazardly buried. Children play happily in the rubble, seemingly unaware of their unique surroundings.

This is just one of at least seven garbage communities that are scattered throughout Cairo. The garbage people make their living collecting and sorting the refuse of the wealthier citizens who pay 36 cents a month for their service.

Converging on the city’s streets each day, the garbage collectors ride in their donkey carts. They weave through traffic clogged with overcrowded buses, Mercedes and trucks carrying packs of camels to the slaughterhouse. In the evenings they return to their communities with the day’s collection mounted dangerously high and practically overflowing back onto the streets. Wives and children sort the garbage into piles of glass, cans, plastics, metal, cloth and rags. Nothing is wasted. The edible garbage is fed to the pigs who are fattened and sold. Middlemen buy the rest of the sorted refuse for recycling.

Arriving to live among the debris of the dumps is a Frenchwoman whose reputation is well known to the “rag pickers” as she affectionately calls them. Sister Emmanuelle, who is 73 years old, strides into the Mukattam compound bursting with energy and determination. Her faithful Egyptian driver of ten years is hardly able to keep up with her. Her head is wrapped tightly in a plain scarf and her feet are protected by a pair of heavy walking boots.

She carries a pail and shovel and is about to approach a distant hill of garbage when she is stopped by some of the people. They want to show her the new home they have built especially for her. Sister Emmanuelle slows her pace and follows the crowd which has gathered to lead her to her new home. Smiling and talking in Arabic, she stops along the way to kiss and hug the children. The crunching sound of garbage underfoot is drowned out by the happy chattering of the crowd.

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Tags: Egypt Sisters Education Health Care Waste