This just in! An everydaytrash.com exclusive from Cairo where Garbage Dreams filmmaker Mai Iskander arranged for our friend and journalist Beige Luciano-Adams to attend a screening of the film and speak with Zabaleen activists.
Following a screening of Garbage Dreams at the International Sustainability Conference in Cairo last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged an award of $1 million for the Spirit of Youth Foundation, the NGO featured in the film. For the filmmaker and her subjects, the award comes as a welcome surprise, and a testament to a growing international interest in the Zabaleen of Egypt.
But since Mai last filmed Adham, Nabil and Osama, the three protagonists whose wintry narratives outline a broader story of survival in the community, conditions on the ground have deteriorated. Cairo’s Zabaleen are still locked out of the trash trade by the multinational companies that arrived on the scene several years ago as part of the Egyptian government’s failed attempt to overhaul the municipal waste management system.
Recently, in what many criticize as a grossly misguided attempt to prevent an H1N1 pandemic, the Egyptian government culled nearly 300,000 pigs –eliminating an important source of income for the Zabaleen, who raised the pigs on the city’s daily tidal wave of organic waste. Without pigs – and without the legal right to collect and sort trash – many unemployed Zabaleen are resorting to illegal scavenging. According to Ezzat Naim Guindy, who heads the Spirit of Youth Foundation (SOY), the average Zabaleen salary has been cut in half since the pigs were killed.
Guindy and other community leaders say the next several years will be crucial to the fate of the Zabaleen, as activists attempt to legalize their profession and fully integrate them in the formal waste management sector. Currently, Guindy says about 90 percent of the Zabaleen operate illegally. Leaders are also hoping that their campaign for source separation – in which residents sort organic from non-organic waste before it reaches trash collectors – will gain government support and take root among Cairo’s 20-million citizens. With the multinational companies’ government contracts set to expire in 2015, the Zabaleen are focusing on modernizing their trade so they can reclaim a place for themselves in the system.
While the current economic outlook is bleak, there is growing international interest in the Zabaleen’s industrious and innovative recycling practices. Leaders also note that the Egyptian government is finally acknowledging the Zabaleen as a valuable and skilled resource. As for the Gates grant, which has yet to be confirmed, the money will ostensibly be used to support the Source Separation campaign, train workers and modernize recycling facilities.
Everydaytrash.com recently sat down with Garbage Dream’s Adham and his teacher, Leila, at a community screening of the film in the Zabaleen settlement of Moqattam, Cairo, to discuss current challenges and visions for the future. The following are edited excerpts from these conversations.
everydaytrash.com: What are you doing now?
Adham: I graduated from school, and I’m continuing my studies in the government school. I’m saving my money to buy a used car so I can work – I want to collect materials at night and do transportation work during the day.
everydaytrash.com: How has the economic situation changed for the community since the film – have things gotten worse, or have people found a way to create work in the new system?
Adham: Now there’s no work. The foreign companies took the work. Some people collect materials from the trash and from the multinational bins (scavenging). And starting about a month ago, men here have being doing [plastic] granulating with a company, going to the garbage collectors and working as middlemen.
The Zabal still has some work, but he has lost his [livelihood]. It’s really different now.
everydaytrash.com: How has the pig cull affected the Zabaleen?
Adham: Life is very difficult without the pigs. They ate the organic waste – which now has to go to a landfill. This is hard for the Zabaleen because they have to drive [to transport the waste, which cuts into profits]. People aren’t working like they used to. The pigs were also extra income – so it’s very hard for us now.
everydaytrash.com: What is your vision for the future of the Zabaleen community here?
Adham: We want to change. We learned a lot in our school and a lot of us now have the [experience] to start companies with more modern ways.
We want help from the government and from society – we need to make them realize how important the Zabaleen are.
We need government support for the Source Separation program. When we traveled abroad, we brought back knowledge we can use here. Now [SOY] is trying to increase the program; they’re trying to get people to understand the importance of source separation – to understand that the problem can be solved at the source.
everydaytrash.com: What are some of your personal goals – what’s next for you?
Adham: I want to study outside Egypt because I want to get more experience, so I can make a recycling company here. They [Europeans] have the technical know-how but not the precision. I want to bring the technology to Egypt, and the precision to other countries.
everydaytrash.com: How will the Foundation use the money from the Gates grant?
Leila (featured teacher in Garbage Dreams, now principal of the recycling school in the Zabaleen settlement, Moqattam): They’re going to use this money for upgrading the lives of the Zabaleen and their families. They’ll use it to create awareness about the importance of the Zabaleen, the importance of recycling education and the source separation program. This is their vision.
everydaytrash.com: The recycling school currently hosts 120 boys, as well as 60 girls (who come twice a week for literacy and computer programs). Are you hoping to expand the facilities or programs, and perhaps include more students?
Leila: We’re hoping that with more money we’ll be able to buy a bigger place (we don’t own the current one we’re in) and be able to expand the school.
As for the kids, we wait until one class finishes their programs and graduates, then we take another. The process takes five years.
everydaytrash.com: But, with more than 40,000 Zabaleen in this community, isn’t there a greater demand for the program from young people, especially with the recent economic hardship people are facing?
Leila: Yes there’s a big demand, and a lot of children have come. The children bring their friends and relatives to join. The school is willing to take any number of children, but the children have to apply.
Actually, sometimes we go out and recruit dropouts, and sometimes children apply. We have already started going door to door, on every street [to recruit people]. But there are a lot of dropouts in the community that we can’t reach. The problem is that they’ve come out of government schools, where the standard of teaching is very, very poor. If they’re in the middle of the school year, we can’t help them.