What’s that smell, I wondered, as we drove in our customary van with the Duke Engage bunch happily moving on to another tourist site in Coptic Cairo. I just assumed it was like one of the many pungent smells wafting out of the Cairene streets, such as falafel, sweet pastries, automobile exhaust, and the occasional hint of rotten food mixed with garbage.
We had just finished visiting the biggest church in the Middle East, the Mokkatam, a Coptic Church dug into rock cliffs that can seat 20,000 to 30,000 people. It had carvings and bible verses etched into the rock by generations of Coptic Christians dating back hundreds of years to the 3rd or 4th Century AD.
Exiting the church area and entering the local village, we expected to find a typical Cairene village. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s to never make assumptions about Cairo.
The smell filled our van and we suspected its origins came from the horse-drawn watermelon carriage, one of our bodies, or a skinned, bloody cow, but this time it was pure garbage. We were in what is called, “Garbage City.”
Coptic Christians in this area are Cairo’s garbage collectors. Collecting, gathering, sorting, organizing, reorganizing, packaging, and recycling trash is the economic lifeblood of this city. There is literally garbage everywhere; massive garbage bags line the streets and rooms are piled so high that the ground consists of 2 feet of waste. To deal with the non-recyclables and compost, this foul slop is given to pigs as food. During the swine flu epidemic 2 years ago, a state-wide scare led this village to kill all of their pigs and thus eliminated the only outlet by which the trash buildup is reduced.
Predictably, there are tremendous health implications for the women sorting recyclables, the men breathing in fumes, and the children playing in the heaps of litter. But what solutions exist for improving this town? Destroying the source of health problems destroys the only source of income and economic sustainability. And it doesn’t help that the inhabitants are a minority religious group that make up a mere 10% of the Egyptian population.
City wide recycling programs and preliminary trash sorting initiatives could allow for better trash management in Garbage City and reduce exposure to various types of harmful waste. However, this would require mandates from people in high government positions. In the midst of the restructuring of the Egyptian government and the political experiment known as democracy, it is doubtful that the focus is on improving one small, minority-held town of trash in the outskirts of the city.
There are a few social initiatives in the Caribbean that were started by American students that involve transforming recyclables into art, jewelry, and purses. These could be instrumental in gaining enough capital to only focus on recyclables, thereby limiting other rubbish from entering the city. Garbage City already has something very similar in a paper-recycling factory. Women craft brilliant paper products, refashioning envelopes, greeting cards, gift bags, stationary, and other beautiful objects with hand-drawn pictures and colorful dyes. Until politicians sort out the major government problems though, places like these that need aid might go unnoticed for too long.