In 2010, Sorensen Fellow and Brandeis alum Madeleine Stix ’12 worked in Manshiett Nasser in Cairo with the Zabaleen, a Coptic Christian community in predominantly Muslim Egypt. A summary of her experience and her insights can be found in her essay “Treasure Amidst Trash: Preserving Community in the World’s Largest Garbage City” in the Brandeis Ethics Center’s publication Shifting Perspectives: Encountering Community in a Changing World. The Zabaleen are the largest community of informal garbage collectors in the world and are the focus of the widely acclaimed film Garbage Dreams, which Madeleine helped to promote during her time serving in Egypt. In her essay, Madeleine describes the origin of the Zabaleen community and the religious and economic discrimination they face in current-day Egypt. Migrating from Upper Egypt to Cairo 70-80 years ago, the Zabaleen used to work as rural pig breeders, but were forced to relocate to the Cairo landfills due to agrarian reforms by Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser that evicted the Zabaleen minority from rural lands.
In 2009, in an effort to “clean up” the Zabaleen landfill slums in Cairo, the Egyptian government enforced the mass slaughter of 300,000 of their pigs, destroying the livelihoods of many waste scavengers. Stix interned with the Spirit of Youth Association, started by local Zabaleen waste scavenger Ezzat Naim Guindy, to help implement a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to introduce the marginalized Zabaleen community into the formal waste system in Egypt. To do this, she helped promote a strategy known as source separation, where the Zabaleen, rather than scavenge the waste in the landfill, actually start separating their waste at the source in waste management facilities to make it easier for them to recycle. The Spirit of Youth Assoc. also established a Recycling School for Boys, where boys bring plastic containers to the school and fill out a form showing how many bottles they’ve retrieved (learning reading, writing, and arithmetic in the process) to aid their work.
Since the fall of Mubarak, the Zabaleen have continued to face adversity and discrimination. Since the Egyptian Revolution, progress on the Gates grant and the recycling project in Egypt has been suspended due to continued religious and socioeconomic discrimination against the Zabaleen community (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail). According to Stix, when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Party was elected President of Egypt earlier this year, he promised to resolve Egypt’s waste management issues through the “Clean Homeland Campaign”, that models a new waste management system based on Turkey’s current system. The question still remains whether the marginalized Zabaleen will be introduced into the formal waste management system and permitted to work at the source of waste collection sites, or whether the reforms will abandon the Zabaleen community and only involve multinational waste management companies. Although the Zabaleen and the Spirit of Youth Association would like to continue their work on their Gates initiative and would like to work alongside the multinational organizations to build an effective organic and non-organic recycling process, few know what to expect for Egypt as a whole, let alone the Zabaleen community, under the new Morsi regime (Madeleine Stix, Oct. 17, via e-mail).