If you drive out past Helwan on the outskirts of Cairo, take a left at the large mound of trash and drive for about 15 minutes on an unpaved trail through piles of refuse, you will reach the “15th of May” settlement. With a church, a mosque and a restaurant, it is every bit its own village, with a population of perhaps a few hundred or so. A good distance from the noise and bustle of the city, the “15th of May” might make a charming place to live were it not for the unsavory surrounding landscape. So why the odd choice in locale, you might ask? Why would anyone choose to live in a garbage dump?
The answer is startlingly simple: because the dump is both their home and their livelihood.
Cairo is lacking in many things but garbage is not one of them, and there is a whole social class that makes a living off it. The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could not be more true for anyone in the world than it is for the zabbaleen. By night, they collect the trash from around the city and by day, they sort it: whatever food can be found is given to their livestock and the rest is sold to recyclers.
It is a well-established enterprise that has been given a clearly marked position in Egyptian class society. Often, the lines between the lower, upper and middle class can be hard for me to see in Cairo: all live in dust-colored high-rises on crowded, noisy streets. But unlike humble kiosk-owners or maids who live in poverty but rub shoulders with the rest of society, the zabbaleen live apart. They are outcast to a handful of settlements on the outskirts of the city and only come into the city to rid it of its waste by cover of night. They are not seen, heard from or spoken of.
So driving into the “15th of May” to me was like discovering a secret treasure trove. Hidden away where few others had ventured were some of the most beautiful, friendly people I have met yet in Egypt. Barefoot little girls with bright eyes and toothless smiles peppered me with questions about my family and giggled at my frequent Arabic mistakes. A group of young boys invited me to join their game of marbles and patiently taught me how to play. I talked with three teenage girls about school and their dreams of the future, and one told me with excitement about her recent engagement. I snuck into the back of a Sunday school class (it was called this even though it was held on a Friday hehe) and listened in on part of the creation story.
And I loved every minute I was there.
To be honest, I was so enthralled by the hugs and smiles that I almost forgot I was in a garbage dump until, at the end of Sunday school, the children were given twinkies and juice boxes and they began to discard the wrappers on the ground. Instinctually, I wanted to pick them up and find a bin where they could throw their trash instead of littering. It took me a moment to realize somberly that this place was the bin.
I was in a trash dump. And it would have been a horribly dark place, were it not for all the little lights.
Quite poetically, my friend Amir was hard at work on the church roof to bring some light there—in the literal sense. He and his friends have discovered a way to make a lightbulb out of a plastic bottle, bleach and distilled water. You just fasten the water bottle so that the bottom half is inside the house and the top half is sticking up on the roof and then the water and bleach refract whatever light there is outside to light up the room as much as a 60 watt bulb. Because it depends on sunlight, it doesn’t work at night time, but it does provide ramshackle, windowless homes with much-need illumination during the day. So this incredible group of college students has taken on the project of installing these bottles bit by bit in the homes of this forgotten community– and I got to be there to see it start.
The jubilation on Amir’s face when he saw that his experiment worked lit up the room as much as the “water-bulb” itself. It was one of the highlights of my time here so far actually, and a good reminder: light can come in the darkest places in the strangest of forms.