Taking A Peek of The Zabbaleen: The Garbage People of Cairo, Egypt

Manshiyat Nasser: A City Where 85% of Cairo’s Waste is Recycled

In the outskirts of Cairo, specifically in the base of Mokattam hills, there lies a city named Manshiyat Nasser, also known as “Garbage City”. Manshiyat Nasser is a slum area that became home for 262.000 Egyptian people who live under poverty line. These people are then called as the Zabbaleen People, a term in Egyptian Arabic with the meaning “Garbage People” .

Just like the nickname suggests, Manshiyat Nasser is filled with garbage that are scattered throughout the city, on the streets, in city’s corner, and even on roofs and high-rise buildings. The city also lacks basic infrastructures such as electricity, water, and sewage system. Manshiyat Nasser received garbage from Cairo, and the Zabbaleen people make a living from collecting and recycling the waste that they received.

Some boys were standing in front of a pile of garbage in Manshiyat Nasser. Source: Ayoung0131/EnglishWikipedia
Some boys were standing in front of a pile of garbage in Manshiyat Nasser. Source: Ayoung0131/EnglishWikipedia

The origin of Zabbaleen people itself can be traced back to the year 1940, in which farmers from North Egypt migrated due to poverty and crop failures. Initially, these people started a new leaf by raising pig, chicken, and goat. However, they turned to become waste collector and recycler of Cairo’s waste, which turns out to be more profitable. The existence of Manshiyat Nasser as a garbage city as well as the Zabbaleen people who reside in it has been around for 70 years. This condition is also caused by the absence of Cairo’s efficient waste management system.

Zabbaleen people collect garbage from Cairo by offering individual waste pickup from one house to another with a small amount of fee. Those garbage are then transported to Manshiyat Nasser using trucks or donkey cart.  Upon arrival, the garbage are sorted into two main categories: recyclable and non recyclable.

Pile of garbage in the streets and on a garbage truck in Manshiyat Nasser. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk
Pile of garbage in the streets and on a garbage truck in Manshiyat Nasser. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk

The waste processing is done collectively, and the Zabbaleen people has their own roles, either in collecting, transporting, and sorting waste. Usually, the activity of collecting and transporting waste is done by men, whereas women and children are assigned in waste-sorting. Moreover, every member of the family usually sort waste based on different categories. For instance, a husband’s duty is to sort the plastic waste while the wife sorts the paper one. Even though the waste sort-sorting process sounds simple and conventional, Zabbaleen people are proven to be impressive in terms of waste management, as the city’s recycling rate is as high as 85% from a total of 7,000 tons of waste that they received every day.  

As a city, Manshiyat Nasser has its own rules, such as the allocation of area and waste for each household, which should not be violated. With such systems, the Garbage City of Cairo is fully independent from and relies fully on the waste that they received. They even have their own stores, cafes, and local schools for children.

The Controversial Story of Zabbaleen People

It can be said that the Zabbaleen people have very important roles for Cairo, since they were the ones who managed the waste that are produced, otherwise the citizens of Cairo could drown in their own garbage. Unfortunately, besides the filthy environment, the living condition of Zabbaleen people is far from ideal. They are still under appreciated because other people saw their job of managing waste as dirty, which makes them look inferior.  Moreover, Zabbaleen people also suffer discrimination because they are Coptic Christian living among the Muslim majority in Cairo.

Two children posing in front of garbage piles. Source: A Youtube video entitled” The Zabbaleen of Garbage City.”
Two children posing in front of garbage piles. Source: A Youtube video entitled” The Zabbaleen of Garbage City.”

In 2003, the government of Cairo hired a private company to manage Cairo’s waste. However, the local company stated that they are unable to accept the government’s request due to the sheer amount of waste that are generated every day. Even though the Zabbaleen people ends up managing Cairo’s waste as before, the act of hiring another party to handle the city’s waste is seen as indirectly threatening the livelihood of the Zabbaleen who rely completely on the generated waste. 

In addition, when the swine flu broke out throughout the globe in 2009, the government of Egypt decided to eliminate around as many as 350 thousand of pigs who are mostly owned by the Zabbaleen, a decision that was labeled as “not scientifically-based” by the World Health Organization. This is because in Egypt itself, there was not any swine flu cases.

A man is catching a pig to be brought to the slaughterhouse in Cairo. Source: Shawn Baldwin/The New York Times
A man is catching a pig to be brought to the slaughterhouse in Cairo. Source: Shawn Baldwin/The New York Times

This measure causes a great negative impact for the residents of Manshiyat Nasser, as pigs hold an important role in organic waste management by eating leftover and rotting food. The same pigs can later on be sold to restaurants or hotels that cater non-Muslim tourists to be consumed. Even though the Garbage City eventually managed to get back on its feet, the Cairo waste collection as well as the Zabbaleen community themselves almost come to a halt, and their condition has never been the same ever since.

Waste and The Life Expectancy of Zabbaleen People

Even though they are often under appreciated, the Zabbaleen people are not ashamed of what they do. In fact, they take pride in themselves for being able to feed their families from the act of managing waste and indirectly solve environmental problems.

Children who are seen playing in the Garbage City of Manshiyat Nasser. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk
Children who are seen playing in the Garbage City of Manshiyat Nasser. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk

Apart from whether or not they feel content with their job, the Zabbaleen people have the right for a better livelihood, since the life expectancy of Zabbaleen people itself depends on the types of work that they do. To begin with, the activity of collecting and managing waste requires a huge amount of labor, and the Zabbaleen often feel exhausted after a day’s work. Moreover, adult men whose task is to carry garbage on their back often have backache as a result. Then there is also the problem regarding accidents at work, ranging from being exposed to medical waste, touching shards of glass without using proper gloves, and many more.

According to Assad R. (1998) in his paper entitled “Upgrading the Mokattam Zabbaleen (Garbage Collectors) Settlement in Cairo: What Have We Learned?, the infant mortality rate, especially one that is caused by tetanus, is very high. In 1981, the infant mortality rate is as many as 240 mortality for every one thousand births.  Even though the infant mortality rate decreased into 117 babies per thousand births in 1991, the figure is still considered high compared to the average infant mortality rate in Cairo during 1990 until 1995, which is 45.6 per thousand births.

The parents in Manshiyat Nasser want their children to go to regular schools to get a better education and eventually break out from the poverty cycle that has entrapped most of the Zabbaleen people for generations. Unfortunately, more often than not those children are forced to start working very early. If they can choose, then surely the citizens of Manshiyat Nasser do not want to keep living under such conditions.

A woman sorting the garbage in Manshiyat  Nasser. Credit: Scott Nelson/2009
A woman sorting the garbage in Manshiyat  Nasser. Credit: Scott Nelson/2009

A Similar Condition in Bantar Gebang

In Bantar Gebang landfill, 18.000 people are estimated to live in the vicinity of the landfill, and 6.000 of them work as waste picker. In addition to the water and air pollution, the people who make a living out of processing those waste also experienced social and psychological gap, which make the people living in Bantar Gebang, especially children, reluctant to hang out with people who live outside of the Bantar Gebang area.

Even so, efforts in improving Bantar Gebang is perpetually done, both from the government and local communities. From the government’s side, since the management of Bantar Gebang was taken by the DKI Jakarta Provincial Government in 2016, there have been several positive changes in the landfill. The changes include planting more trees, installing a cover soil covered by geomembrane in order to reduce the foul smell of the garbage, as well as reorganizing the mountains of garbage to prevent landslides. In addition, a social movement called Bantar Gebang Biji (BGBJ) is committed to raise hope within the people of Bantar Gebang through various educational and entrepreneurial activity. To know more about Bantar Gebang landfill, you can read about it in Waste4Change website.  

Working to collect and manage waste is not something that every person want and able to do. That is all the more reason for the Zabbaleen and the people in Bantar Gebang to be appreciated and supported, no the other way around.     

 

Being Humane to the People Who Manage Our Waste through Responsible Waste Management

In Waste4Change, we believe that the people who earn a living from managing one’s waste deserve to be empowered and have a decent life just like any other people.

Therefore, the waste operator in Waste4Change are required to wear safety equipment such as nasal mask and gloves whenever they are working. The operator team itself is divided into two categories: waste-collection team and waste-processing team. The objective of such operational work standards is none other than to protect them from possible risks such as being wounded by glass shards or respiratory disorders due to being exposed to foul smell/dust originating from the garbage.  

Waste4Change also prevents hazardous items, such as cracked glass, medical waste, as well as Toxic and Hazardous waste, that might cause any harm by advocating waste segregation from the source, either through written notice, verbal, or the provision of segregated waste bin.

Besides creating safe work environment, the waste operators in Waste4Change also received a more stable income compared to what they got before they started working in Waste4Change.

Waste4Change's Waste Management Operator
Waste4Change’s Waste Management Operator

As ordinary humans who still generate waste, the least thing that we can do is to apply a responsible waste management system, which can be started by the act of sorting waste according to the existing categories. Waste4Change provides waste management services  called Zero Waste to Landfill (ZWTL), in which we ensure that the waste from our clients are transported in a segregated state instead of ended up in landfills. In addition, Waste4Change also provides waste management service in the form of individual waste collection.

By segregating your waste, you will not only help to tackle environmental problems and realize circular economy, but also help in improving the quality of lives of the people who earn a living by collecting our waste.

In need for a responsible and segregated waste collection service? Kindly reach us at Waste4Change

 

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