The Zabaleen of Cairo

busy with food

By Celine D’Cruz, SDI Secretariat 

Zabaleen is Arabic for Garbage People. 

Our visit to Cairo in late January 2012 was planned on the invitation of Ezzat Naem Gunn, a leader from a local Egyptian NGO called Spirit of Youth (SOY), run and managed by residents from the Zabbaleen community. 

The objective of this visit was for SDI to understand how the Zabbaleen organise themselves and create a voice and an identity for themselves in the city of Cairo. This visit also gave the opportunity for SDI to share with members of SOY, SDI’s strategy for organising and creating a voice of slum dwellers locally, nationally and internationally. Though SDI does not specifically work with issues of garbage collectors and recycling, it does work with settlements where communities also recycle among many other occupations. For example, in Dharavi, in Mumbai, NSDF/SPARC have been working towards making sure that the interest of the recycling communities are taken care of while the government is planning the redevelopment of Dharavi.  

Past exchanges by members of the SDI federation members from South Africa and Kenya to Cairo focused essentially on sharing technical information on the recycling process and savings. The focus of this particular visit was to understand the evolution of the leadership and organisational set up of the Zabbaleen.

Day1:Visited Al Mokattam (the hills) close to where one of the six zabbaleen communities of Cairo is located.  The Mokattam township houses one of the six garbage collectors settlements in Cairo. This is also where SOY has its office. Since it was a Sunday most of the recycling workshops/ businesses were closed, but we noticed women sort the garbage backlog from the previous days collection. Most of the Zabbaleen are Coptic Christians and being a Sunday they took us to see the St. Simon’s church at Al Mokattam located very close to the community.

Ezzat, 43 years, who gives leadership to SOY, lives with his family in the Mukattam village and was also a garbage collector as a young boy. He was one of those bright boys who decided to start his own NGO, “Spirit of Youth” to work for the rights of garbage collectors like him.  Not knowing any better, they decided to create an NGO with members from the Zabbaleen settlements. Ezzat gave us a background of their history and politics of garbage in the city of Cairo. Later that afternoon we got more of the history and context from Laila Iskander (not a Zabbaleen) but who was invited to be on the Board of SOY.

What Got our Attention… 

The differentiation between the garbage collectors mostly men and young boys – who use trucks (they used donkey carts in the past, however, the quantity of garbage they collect has increased and they have had to invest in trucks) to collect garbage from door to door in their respective areas. On the other hand, the garbage sorters are mostly women and children who are responsible to sort the waste once the truckloads of garbage return to the settlement.  They separate the garbage in different categories but mainly they separate the organic from the inorganic waste. The inorganic waste like paper, plastic, metal etc. are then recycled in the recycling workshops owned by members of the Zabaleen community who have been able to afford to buy the machinery over time.  In the past the Wahahi’s controlled this part of the process as they made the profits from recycling. 

History and politics of garbage in Cairo is very interesting. The Zabaleen families manage the waste of about 60% of the cities population. The other 30% is managed (or not so well managed) by private companies. The rest of the 10% of the slums get left out, as they cannot afford to pay for their garbage removal.  The slum dwellers also consume less as compared to the others citizens in the city, making their garbage valueless to the garage collector.  So according to Zabaleens they recycle 80% of the garbage they collect (it use to be 100% when the pigs were around), while the corporations recycle 25% of the garbage they collect, and put the rest in landfills.

The history of garbage collection in the city of Cairo began with the people who migrated from the oasis (Wahiyas) who came first to the city in 1910.  They monopolised garbage collection in Cairo by signing contracts with building owners. In turn, they collected money each month from families who lived in these apartments. In the second wave of migration around the 1940’s, families, mostly farmers from Upper Egypt affected by the drought, migrated to the city in search for jobs. The Wahiyas who were Muslims made a deal with these new migrants who were Coptic Christians that they would give them access to the areas that they collected their garbage from and promised them land if they collected their garbage for them. The Wahiyas controlled the right to collect garbage and took responsibility for waste removal in the city and the Zabaleen managed the hauling and the disposal of the garbage. Though this meant working under the control of the Wahiyas, the early leaders agreed to this, as it seemed like a reasonable deal.  In the early days when the Wahiya’s managed this process by themselves, the organic waste was used for heating water in the public baths (also called hamams in Arabic) and for cooking large pots of beans which needed long hours of slow cooking. When the Zabaleen arrived, they began to purchase the organic waste from the Wahiyas to feed to their pigs. This worked well for the Wahiyas as well, as the common baths and community kitchens for cooking beans was soon dated.

The government realised how lucrative the garbage business is and, in 1989, decided to take more interest in the city’s garbage. They decided to regulate the garbage collection process and give out contracts to private corporations to look after different sections of the city.  The government did not compensate the Zabaleen for these changes, and as a result, the privatisation of waste collection threatens the socio-economic sustainability of the Zabaleen community. The Wahiya’s who continue to have some control and have struck deals with the city and the private corporations on behalf of the Zabaleen.  However, the Zabaleen have overtime understood that they need to  create their own private businesses and register as companies so that they can bid for contracts directly just like the private corporations do. 

More recently, in April 2009 the Zabaleen have faced another challenge when the Mubarak government, ordered the culling of all pigs in Cairo, They used the spread of H1N1 (a type of hepatitis) as an excuse. However, the Zabaleens are clear that this was a way to appease the Muslims who have had a long standing issue about the pigs. This has had its own implications for the Zabaleens and the city, both negative and positive.  This was a major setback to the Zabbaleen and the city because the pigs ate all the organic waste. Immediately after the culling of the pigs, there was a visible increase of trash piles and rotting food on the streets of Cairo.  However, the young people in the community having now lived without pigs since 2009 like it that way.  The community is divided about having pigs and this is also pushing them to think of compositing their organic waste (a fairly new idea). They are also rethinking about creating pig farms away from their home (with the change in government in the last year they think they can get the pigs back) separate from their present living space. There are also worries that the government is seeking to remove the Mokattam Village, also known as “Garbage City” on grounds that their occupation is hazardous and therefore want them to relocate outside of Cairo.

Forming a Syndicate of Garbage Collectors is the next strategy. That evening there was a celebration of the Zabaleen Syndicate, a new born institution created by SOY, as a next step to create an identity and voice for the Garbage Collectors in the city.   The idea of the syndicate is in the process of being refined and the leadership have yet to get clarity on the role and function of the syndicate and how they wish to see this grow and evolve. They defined it more as a union while Shekar and I felt that the scope would be greater if it was created as a federation of garbage collectors, a concept that was larger than the union, which is to organise and build their capacity and their voice as a movement of the urban poor garbage collectors in the city.

Day 2: Visited APE, an income generation focussed NGO run by a group of middle and upper class women in Cairo whose mission is to generate income for the Zabaleen women. They train women in making home-based products from recycled material like cloth and paper. Women learn how to weave carpets and do patch work and make items from cloth and paper and sell their produce from an outlet that they have on the same premises.  APE calls this “learning by earning.”

However, most of these women who come here also continue to sort garbage, which is their main source of income.

Establishing companies is the next step to create a formal identity as garbage collectors so that they are able to bid for contracts.    We spent most of the day with members of SOY at Al Mokattam visiting different recycling businesses. We tagged along with a team of young men who were visiting the Ministry of Investment to register a new Company for Garbage Collectors. This seems to be a recent preoccupation of SOY as a way to deal with the politics of garbage in their city.  They have a target to register 100 such companies. The Zabaleen have decided to create companies and formalise themselves so that they can also bid for contracts like the private companies.  It was very interesting for us to see that they have their act together, have obviously mastered the procedures and had their paper work in place. They confidently entered the Ministerial office along with us where we were met by the manager of this new company also a Zabbal (single garbage collector). Thereafter we visited an outfit called “GAFI” (General authorities for Investment and free zone), also government-run, that gives advice to emerging and young enterprises. Our three men seemed to have a very professional and long relationship with the officer they were meeting.

This young officer was very enthused to explain to us what his job entailed. We were struck by how passionately this young man was involved in their new company and said that he got his happiness from supporting the Zabaleen. This surprised us but was also not so unusual as it reminded us of similar people in government who care about slum dwellers and want to support them in the cities SDI works with. He also said that he was not the only one and that there were many of his colleagues who feel the same way and want to do what ever they can to support the Zabaleen’s. The Zabaleen’s have found an in road into the government system, which is a smart move on their part. Forming companies as a way to formalise their relationship with government so that they continue to get business.

DAY3: After visiting the Pyramids at Giza, Shekar and I requested for some time with the SOY team. We wanted to use this time to ask questions to SOY and to present the organisational strategies of SDI and have an exchange of ideas.

We had three questions:

  1. We wanted to know the connection between SOY, CID (a private consultancy company started by Laila Iskander) and APE, the income generation NGO that we visited the previous day.
  2.  We wanted to understand the Zabaleens’ vision of establishing companies and how they saw this in the big picture, with the formation of their own organisation and the newly formed syndicate.
  3. We clearly saw with our eyes that the women were at the bottom of the garbage pyramid (just like the women in Dharavi, Mumbai). They sat there painstakingly taking care of the details and sorting the garbage thoroughly and looking for little treasures that they may find.  We wanted to know how they planned to include these women in their new Syndicate. Would there be a role for these women who merely sorted the garbage too participate?  After all they were not the garbage collectors or the recyclers but were a significant actor in the process.

Ezzat and his young team were very interested in NSDF’s and SDI’s story and organisational vision.  The main messages were the role of savings and information gathering as a means to organise the communities and as a new way to talk to government and other institutions.  The other message that came across was that SDI’s success was mainly due to the participation by women at the level of 60-80% of membership at the city and national level, which gave them something to reflect about. 

Our reflections and potential follow up:

  1. What struck us was the similarity in the role of women in Cairo and Mumbai in the recycling process. They were at the bottom of the pyramid, very powerless and very vulnerable. We strongly feel that there is scope to initiate savings among these women who sort garbage. 
  2. Similarly a large number of children are involved in collecting and sorting garbage. SOY has started a recycling school for them but there is scope to design nutrition and health programs to support the women and children as way to address their needs but also as way to find a more integrated way to address their needs along with the children. The savings groups can take ultimately take responsibility for these other programs as well.
  3. The Egyptian government does not respect NGOs in the same way that they do with the private sector. The formation of companies is a therefore a very good strategy for the Zabaleen’s in their socio political context.
  4. Cairo and Bombay are both mega cities are like a mirror image of each other in their energy fields. The Zabbaleen of Cairo may have lessons to learn from the organisation building strategies of NSDF, the slum dwellers from Mumbai, which may be useful to the Zabbaleen leadership and the recycling communities. In turn the slums of Mumbai can learn from the occupation-specific knowledge and skills and negotiations of the Zabaleen. 
  5. Housing and land does not seem to be an immediate problem for most of the Zabaleen. When they first migrated to city they lived in tin shacks. They have since been evicted at least 3-4 times in their history before settling down where they presently have. Now that they seem to be in a fixed place for a long time they have invested much of their income in constructing 3-4 storied buildings of brick and cement. They start with a single brick structure and slowly construct a floor each and move upwards depending on the needs of the family.  Not sure if the city has any set building regulations but the construction of these buildings seem unplanned and ad hoc but serves their purpose. The garbage is sorted and stacked in all the by lanes of the settlement. They could have planned better for storage facilities if they had the luxury of making a settlement plan.  Each house has its own toilet and water connection and electricity.  However, it will be interesting for SDI to understand and compare the housing context of the Zabaleen’s to the slum dwellers of Cairo who we were told continue to live in tin shacks in many areas. 

You can watch a video about the Zableen here.