Egypt's rubbish collectors

Cairo - Children stop their game of marbles and scatter as rubbish-laden trucks trundle up their dusty street, swarming with flies and grinding dead vermin beneath their wheels.

The sight - and smell - is all too familiar in Zarayib, meaning "the Sties", a shanty-town in northeast Cairo where the zabaleen make their living by sifting through garbage in search of anything recyclable.

Before the Egyptian authorities a year ago ordered a total pig cull in the face of the outbreak of swine flu, the animals would do a lot of the messier work for the zabaleen, as Egyptians plying the garbage trade are known.

Without the pigs, the women of Zarayib are now forced daily to sit atop mounds of detritus in the slum's alleyways sorting rotting food from plastics and glass.

The government said the cull of pigs, estimated in the tens of thousands, was a precaution against swine flu. The mostly Coptic Christian slum dwellers resisted, but eventually surrendered.

But without the pigs the job is nowhere near as efficient and the scavengers are now forced to leave the organic waste in stinking mounds around Cairo or dump it in landfills.

Prosperous rubbish collectors

The pig sties stand largely empty, though some now house goats or buffalo. The few remaining pigs - estimated at no more than 100 - are kept hidden from official view and are jealously guarded.

Pigs are considered filthy by the country's Muslim majority and Islam forbids the eating of pork.

Officials have conceded that they had long wanted to get rid of the swine, whose sties were separated from the zabaleens' homes only by red brick walls. The outbreak of swine flu gave them the excuse to order the slaughter.

"If Muslims got swine flu before the pigs were culled, it would have ignited a sectarian crisis," said Meqadis Shehata, one of the more prosperous rubbish collectors. "They would have set this neighbourhood alight."

At the time, the World Health Organisation said the drastic cull was unjustified.

When swine flu finally hit, it ironically broke out in Cairo's affluent neighbourhoods, spread by travellers, well-off Egyptians and Western students.

Anger at what the slum dwellers saw as official callousness still hangs in the air. The pigs, as well as waste disposal units, were also a much-needed source of income in the neighbourhood.

Flexible schedules

Twice a year the animals were butchered at a slaughter houses and their meat sold to Christians in shops around Cairo.

Income from the sale of pork, meager though it was, helped finance marriages and put some children through school.

The cull, however, has disrupted schooling for many children whose parents now send them to the city to scavenge, said Laila Zaglul, who runs a school funded by US consumer products giant Procter and Gamble that enrolls children of rubbish collectors.

 'I don't want to work as a rubbish collector'

Her school offers flexible schedules for the children who work in the city during the morning. The children in turn bring in plastic for recycling.

"In the past two months, we've had 35 new pupils. A lot of women are coming here asking to place their children," she said in the one-room school.

Pupils seated around a table for a maths lesson struggled with their abacuses. They all said they wanted to be football players when they grew up, taking their cue from Mina.

Grudging symbiosis

"I don't want to work as a rubbish collector," said the lively 14-year-old. "But I'll do it, if that's the opportunity."

Their fathers and grandfathers were collectors of rubbish. Their great grandfathers migrated from the rural south to Cairo and struck up ties with the wahiya, Bedouin migrants who controlled the rubbish trade, a relationship that lasts to this day.

The wahiya established companies with municipal contracts, and hired the zabaleen, the rubbish collectors, to do the dirty work.

This grudging symbiosis continued until the last decade, when Cairo - whose 18 million residents make it one of the most densely populated cities in the world - hired foreign companies to modernise rubbish collection.

As the zabaleen and wahiya tell it, the foreign firms floundered amid the Cairene's custom of leaving their bags of rubbish outside their houses or apartment blocks for the zabaleen to pick up.

Even some of the modern plastic garbage containers the firms left on the streets ended up in the slum's shredders, the zabaleen said.

"The foreign companies have the prestige and the uniforms. But they do not have the Egyptian experience," Shehata said.

Unionise rubbish collectors

The companies, two from Spain and one from Italy, found themselves contracting the wahiya, many of whom did not have their own labour force.

So they in turn hired the zabaleen, who however now want to cut out the middlemen and make contracts of their own directly with the municipality.

But they have no leverage and despite being paid only nominal wages, they simply can't afford to turn down the work they are offered by the wahiya - let alone go on strike.

"The (zabaleen) can't strike. The wahiya knows that," said Ezzat Naim, a social worker with the Spirit of Youth group that runs social services in the neighbourhood.

But, Naim says, that situation may be changing. Last year's cull drew attention to the zabaleen's plight and Naim's organisation recently received one million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help the rubbish collectors start their own licensed businesses.

Naim has other aspirations - he wants to unionise the rubbish collectors, who having been deprived of their pigs now only ask for respect.

The authorities and the residents of Cairo, he says "have stigmatised us and marginalised us".

"That is the shame. We are the ones helping you."

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