InterAction Member Organization:
There’s something quite magical about Cairo. Every morning as we crossed the Nile River from the West Bank to the East on our way to the Garbage District, I couldn’t help but feel captivated by the timeless beauty of Egypt’s capital city. With the desert sun relentlessly beaming down on the city, illuminating the sand-colored buildings and creating a dense haze that partially shadows the Giza Pyramids off in the distance, Cairo is simply objectively beautiful. However, what makes the city absolutely remarkable are the people who live in it.
Although still recuperating from last year’s revolution and still struggling to find a new path for their nation, the Egyptian people are nevertheless among the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. From the adults and children in the Garbage District to the AUC (American University in Cairo) students to the activists who have assumed a monumental role in the restructuring of their nation’s politics, everyone we met and encountered offered us nothing but kindness and hospitality.
In the Garbage District, where we volunteered at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage, the vibrant entrepreneurial and constructive spirit among the inhabitants struck me the most. There is a heavy emphasis on education among the population and an inspiring pride in the work that they do. At one of the schools that we visited, in addition to offering an education in the traditional disciplines, the school also offered an education in the proper techniques for recycling and the actual mechanical process by which recycled items are turned into resellable resources. A five-minute walk away, there is another school where women use recycled material to create actual goods for sale. In one room, we saw a group of women sewing and weaving beautiful blanket covers, rugs and handbags. In another room, we saw the actual process by which paper is made from recycled material, which, to me, was incredibly interesting.
Everywhere we toured throughout the Garbage District (the schools, workplaces, clinics and churches), we found not only a driving, energetic entrepreneurial sprit, but also an immense sense of pride in the work being done. Although life is hard for the zabbaleen, the mostly Coptic inhabitants of the Garbage District, smiles and laughter were abundant. One of our guides, who took us to the hepatitis clinic and the women’s crafts school, remarked: “Our life is hard, but we do it with a smile.” If there is one moment from the trip that I’m certain will stick with me forever, it’s that statement.
The zabbaleen live in poverty and among Cairo’s trash; but they have turned their situation into something productive, innovative, and, in my opinion, absolutely genius. They have not only transformed waste into sellable products (of which I bought a few), but have also allowed Cairo to boast a staggering 80% recycling rate. When comparing this to Manhattan’s rate of 45%, Hartford’s dismal rate of less than 12%, and the United States average of about 32%, we find that the zabbaleen, with limited resources but a whole lot of drive, have outdone their counterparts in the West. And they do it with a smile.
By Nicolas Miyares, a recipient of America's Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) Mosaic Scholarship. He is currently volunteering with Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. in Egypt. This post first appeared on Creative Learning's AUA blog.
Photo Credit: AUA blog.
This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17.