Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Caring for real

By Seheir Kansouh-Habib

Marie Assaad is a name known to all concerned with social work in Egypt. She got her fame from working as a volunteer for more than 20 years in one of the poorest slums of Cairo, the "Zabbaleen" area in Mokkattam. She is known to be the first advocate of the need to segregate (sort) garbage at source.

When I met Marie in her elegant apartment overlooking the Nile in Garden City for the interview, our conversation invariably returned, as if by a magnet, to the "Zabbaleen." After three hours of conversation, I came to realize that Marie's true motivation for introducing segregation of garbage at source was mostly driven by concern for the Zabbaleen, this marginalized community who has been handling garbage in Egypt since time immemorial. Her concern for the environment was there, but environmental problems were not as acute at that time (the 1980s) as they are now.

Marie talked about the solutions she and her partners have been developing over the years to alleviate the plight of the Zabbaleen, and improve their living conditions and that of their families. Their four-pronged approach focused on (1) Health: individually and communally; (2) Education: from alphabetic literacy to computer literacy); (3) Capability building: through skill upgrading and training for income generation, such as teaching them how to recycle waste as a potential source of gainful employment for the economy, or build a compost unit; and, (4) inter- personal relationships: how to listen well, articulate your thoughts; and, accept the other .

For continuous relevance and appropriateness of their work, they undertake socio-economic, gender and environmental impact assessment of the system they apply on segments of the community, to learn from for future interventions.

I came out of the interview knowing much more about the "Zabbaleen" than about Marie. Her passion was contagious. What I learned about these "rubbish people" has changed the state of my mind a hundred fold. From a person mostly concerned about the deteriorating state of our streets, perhaps even partly blaming the Zabbaleen for work "not well done," I started to develop a feeling of guilt for not having thought of them before in a more considerate manner.

In Marie's view, the Zabbaleen's job, at least in the foreseeable future - will continue to be essential for them -- as a source of living, and for the people of Egypt. This is in the absence of workable alternatives, since even by contracting companies to carry out waste collection and disposal, the work itself is done by garbage collectors, while profit goes somewhere else. The challenge then becomes how to give them more dignity and raise them above poverty lines, in the largest sense, not only income poverty, while they continue to perform their thankless job.Consequently, when she promoted "sorting garbage at source" by households and by other public or private institutions, this was, because it would reduce problems for the Zabbaleen who have to sort rubbish themselves by digging with bare hands into piles of rotten material in order to get a few recyclable items to sell for their living. But, as we all know, we never think of the poor Zabbaleen when we carelessly throw our rubbish all mixed together. When we see scavengers cut a plastic bag open in the streets to search for any sellable items and leave the remaining contents of the bag lying about, perhaps we should realize that we are partly the cause of an act that we so rashly condemn.

Sorting garbage at source, should, therefore be seen as a duty incumbent on us all to give more dignity to people whose plight is to live on the waste we discard. Marie explains that sorting at source needs only go as far as separating organic from non-organic waste, and no further. The Zabbaleen have their own reasons for wanting to do the more refined sorting themselves.

The Zabbaleen play a most vital public service. We have seen the shocking consequences for Cairo without their services during the recent garbage crisis in the city. The country needs them. We as citizens cannot do without them. But yet, we look down upon them and allow them to live in dreadful conditions. This too has to be remedied. If I am able to convey this notion to readers, and in any way succeed in changing mindsets, I may have contributed, in a very modest way, to help Marie fulfill what in her own words she considers as "a dream of a lifetime."

Marie has worked with individuals, families, groups, organizations and the community, and started by sitting and listening, something, she says, people seldom do before advocating change. It is difficult to disagree with the view that one should not disrupt a way of life, despite its visible flaws, or tamper with social engineering, without coming up with feasible and acceptable alternatives.

I became convinced that any solution considered for keeping our streets clean has to, first and foremost, start by thinking of those who are currently performing the job. I have heard people say that this is the way the Zabbaleen want for their lives, and that they build wealth out of waste. This might be the case, as waste management is proving that it could turn into becoming a very lucrative source of income. But what led them to accept the unacceptable as a way of life is a question which needs to be probed. The Zabbaleen and their children are entitled to a basic quality of life, which they don't currently have, and this is what needs to be remedied:

This is their human rights, and our obligation.

But who are the Zabbaleen?

The "Zabbaleen" form a marginalized community who live together in certain districts. Marie has been working in Mokkattam, the largest of such districts. It is because they do their thankless job that the country does not drown under its own trash. Garbage has been handled as a family business by the Zabbaleen with clear role definitions: men traditionally collect trash with the help of children; sorting is done by women; men take recyclable products to sell them to traders, including organic material to pig farms, and other products, such as paper, glass, plastic and metal to specialized traders. The whole family, therefore, contributes to make a living out of this occupation, and their dwellings are turned into a huge garbage transitory station. This was the system that Marie tried to understand, with consideration and respect for their long-established mode of survival, before promoting change.

Marie repeatedly says that she has not done her work alone, but that it was thanks to the combined efforts of the dedicated members of the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), founded by the no less dedicated Yousryia Loza, that success could be achieved. Decades of devoted work were spent by these exceptional women defining problems, seeking solutions, experimenting with them, and remaining in close proximity with the Zabbaleen in their living quarters, slums full of filth, flies, stench, and the ever-present danger of disease. At least, they deserve our recognition and applauses.

Talking with Marie, one gets a clearer understanding of what it is to be poor, to perform essential tasks no one else is ready to do, and make a living out of such tasks under abject and humiliating circumstances. The Zabbaleen have created a system of their own for survival. This system has worked for some time for Cairo, while at the same time providing a livelihood for thousands of families. So far, there is no workable alternative to the job done by the Zabbaleen. Before we bulldoze their mode of life, we have to think of alternatives that are good for them, good for us and good for the country.

At end, we may all have a very legitimate question to ask and this is the crux of the story: Why is it then that after all such efforts by Marie and her partners as well as by other benevolent individuals and groups, is the quality of life in the Zabbaleen ghettos so critical up to this moment? In my opinion, the magnitude and the scale of problems, with a growing population and complexities of modern life, are beyond the capacity of any group to do it without genuine and complete support from all stakeholders.

There is one good thing that has come out of the swine flu episode, which has generated such unprecedented attention on the "Rubbish People." We have learned that we cannot continue to live on the miseries of some of us. Marie's message came through loud and clear to me. I hope I have passed it on to our readers.

About Marie

Marie Assaad, born Bassili, has her family roots in Assiut and Sohag but was born and lives in Cairo. Her education began at the Ghamra public school. She completed high school at the American College for Girls before obtaining her BA in Sociology and Anthropology from the American University in Cairo. After serving as a teacher, Assaad was appointed as the first Egyptian woman to serve on the World YWCA (Young Women Christian Association) in Geneva. She married Assaad Abdel Motagaly Assaad in 1955, and had two boys, Hani and Ragui. When her children grew older, she worked towards her Masters in Sociology at AUC. In 1980, she served as the first woman Deputy Secretary General of the World Council of Churches. She was first brought to the Mokkattam area as a volunteer for EQI (Environment Quality International) which had started to build a compost plant in the area. In 1987 she began to volunteer with the community full time by joining the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE).

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