Yesterday, Jeff and I participated in a CSA* tour of the Mokkatum Church complex (the subject of a different blog). It was absolutely stunning, but for now, I don't want to talk about that beautiful complex. I want to tell you about the ugly part of Mokkatum.
To get to the cave churches, we had to drive through the part of Mokkatum that is commonly known as Garbage City. To understand Garbage City, you must understand that Egypt's trash collection system is not the same as it is in the United States. In the U. S., recyclables go to the recycling center, and trash goes to a landfill. In Cairo, trash is not sorted into recyclables and non-recyclables in the home. Everything goes to the same place. Originally, it all went to Garbage City. Apparently, there now are other places where trash goes as well, but a LOT of it still goes to Garbage City. The trash collectors are very poor; illiteracy rates among them are even higher than the 47% rate in Egypt as a whole. The collected trash goes to Garbage City, where it is sorted. I know at least some of it then goes to recycling centers, but I'm not sure of what percentage is recycled or where the rest of it goes.
Driving through Garbage City, the stench was unmistakable. The narrow, winding streets were lined with piles of trash. Occasionally we had to pull over to allow a truck through--just a regular pick-up truck, but piled high with sorted trash. By "high," I mean really high; the pile in the truck bed would be two or three times as high as the top of the truck cab. We saw one truck piled high with cardboard, with four children sitting on top of the pile.
Whole families live in Garbage City. Both adults and children were hard at work along the streets and alleys, sorting the trash. They sort it into piles of papers, fabrics, plastics, food waste, non-food organic waste . . . all day every day, these people live, breathe, and work surrounded by Cairo's trash. There were food shops located right next to trash piles. One man was selling food out of cart on the corner; there were piles of garbage within a foot of the cart.
Needless to say, this area opened my eyes to the true meaning of the word "poverty." The people who live and work in Garbage City are absolute nobodies in the eyes of Egyptian society. These people are deeply ashamed of their status. They want to work; they want to support themselves and their families and to make a better life for their children. We didn't take pictures of Garbage City, and even in Mokkatum we tried to avoid pictures that had people in them, because our guide, Hala, told us that the people are so ashamed of their living conditions that they don't want pictures taken.
There is some work being done to help the people of Garbage City. The churches of Mokkatum try to ease the lives of the people through education. They also provide some services that wealthier Cairenes can obtain elsewhere: On the Mokkatum grounds, there is a small sporting/recreational area, a small zoo, and a small garden. The area around Mokkatum is inhabited primarily by Coptic Christians, so they are the ones who are ministered to by Mokkatum. In another area of Garbage City, where the population is primarily Muslim, the Association for the Protection of the Environment is active.
The Association for the Protection of the Environment is a non-profit organization that operates at least one recycling center, offers literacy classes for children, and provides childcare. We visited a recycling center after we left Mokkatum. We saw two recycling units: a fabric unit and a paper unit.
In the fabric unit, women and girls are trained to create weavings and patchwork quilts. Originally, all of the fabrics were recycled from the garbage. Now, a small percentage of the material still comes from the garbage, but the vast majority of it (over 90%, I think) comes from textile plants that donate their scraps. The women and girls are taught to make quilts, pillow covers, handbags, and rugs from these scraps. We saw in their showroom some items that they had for sale, and they were beautiful. We bought a few items as gifts and intend to buy more for our apartment once we get the furniture and paint colors finalized.
In the paper unit of the recycling center, women and girls are trained to recycle paper and create stationery and art. In that showroom, we saw framed and unframed art, gift bags, stationery, greeting cards, and book marks. We bought some of the cards, so some of you may eventually receive one. All of these things--fabric and paper items--are available for sale all over Cairo, and even internationally. Some of the rug and handbag styles are very popular.
I've attached a picture of some of the items we bought at the recycling center.
*CSA is the Community Services Association. It's an English-speaking expat group, I think run by British expats. Its headquarters is here in Maadi. It has a coffee bar, a fitness room, a library, and a clothes closet. It organizes tours, classes, and other activities for expats. This was my first CSA tour, but it definitely will not be my last.