Spirit of Youth dives into Cairo’s solid waste

Anyone who has spent a day in Cairo knows that the city’s streets suffer from a serious trash problem. Most dumpsters are concealed behind the mounds of garbage surrounding them, and the fact that the vast majority of lamp-post trash baskets are literally bottomless makes their existence seem like an unnecessary prank. Meanwhile, any rare empty lots or open spaces invariably end up as junkyards or makeshift parking lots, often both. Over the years, countless NGOs and government organizations have tried–and failed–to make a lasting impression on the Egyptian population, which generally seems to regard littering as one of its few birthrights. Today, members of the NGO Spirit of Youth are approaching the problem from a different angle, one that targets trash collectors as opposed to compulsive polluters.

Based in the Zabaleen district of Manshiyet Nasser, Spirit of Youth is an NGO comprised of residents of the area, which takes its name from the Egyptian word for “garbage men” due, doubly, to the fact that the vast majority of the city’s trash collectors not only live there, but seem to take their work home as well. As a result, the area is dominated by mountains of garbage, an overwhelming stench, and herds of stray goats, chickens, and dogs feeding on the growing mess.

According to Mansour Keddeis Ageib, a Spirit of Youth board member, the organization was set up “as an initiative for the youth of the Zabaleen area to express their dreams of what they felt their neighborhood could one day become.” However, the Spirit of Youth’s projects are not necessarily limited to their own neighborhood–the organization’s first undertaking oversaw the separation of trash from over 9,000 housing units in Al-Zawya Al-Hamra, a similarly underdeveloped neighborhood.

“We had a fairly high rate of success,” Ageib says of the Al-Zawya Al-Hamra initiative. “After we talked to the neighborhood’s residents about trash separation, we’d go around to their houses and secretly check the trashcans outside their door to gauge how effective our message had been.” Residents who had indeed separated their trash were given new trashcans and cleaning materials to further encourage their efforts.      

Besides Al-Zaywa Al-Hamra, the Spirit of Youth has also taken a heavy interest in educational institutions, particularly those in its own neighborhood. “We’ve worked with over 20 schools in Manshiyet Nasser,” says Karam Saber, board member and trainer for the Spirit of Youth. Besides buying uniforms for over 400 underprivileged families, the organization also tries to help out older individuals who weren’t lucky enough to have similar initiatives around during their school days. “We’ve tried to help families by taking non-educated adults back to school. We help them get all the permits and licenses they might be lacking, like a birth certificate or a driver’s license, so that they can fully enjoy all the opportunities that come with having those documents.”

Saber claims that the Spirit of Youth has also provided students with routine medical checkups, pinpointing probable causes of academic performance that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, such as poor eyesight or undetected illnesses. The Spirit of Youth also offers several other programs and projects geared towards keeping the neighborhood’s children in school, especially girls. “We try to focus on the girls,” says Saber. “Here, and in similar neighborhoods, boys enjoy more rights, and have more opportunities. Some girls aren’t allowed to go to school because their parents don’t want them walking there and back everyday.”   

Now, the organization is turning its attention towards the group of people from which their neighborhood has taken its name. “The zabaleen (garbage men) work in a very unorganized way,” says Ageib. “They do not adhere to any procedures or methods, because none have ever been established or properly enforced. We want to raise awareness. We want to train them to deal with trash in a responsible, environmentally friendly way. To do that, we need to teach them how and, more importantly, why, to separate the trash they collect.”  

“Now, more than ever, this problem demands to be addressed,” claims Saber. “After all the pigs disappeared (as a result of last year’s swine-flu hysteria), the amount of trash increased exponentially.”

Besides teaching the garbage collectors the importance of separating their trash, the Spirit of Youth will also attempt to help them form some sort of union. “These people need permits and official work papers,” Ageib explains. “They need a union. For years, the vast majority of them have been working in a ‘orfi’, clandestine fashion, with no form of official documents or agreements to support them.” Ageib repeatedly states his organization’s unshakeable belief that the solution to the uncontrollable trash lies in the re-education of the nation’s garbage men. “Training them beforehand is essential because they are at the core of this particular problem,” Ageib insists.

This belief is shared by more than just the members of the Spirit of Youth, as evidenced by the fact that the organization was recently awarded US$1 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The money, according to the Spirit of Youth’s board members, will go into the project, which will be implemented across the capital over the course of five years. “The main idea,” Ageib explains, “is to improve living conditions all over Cairo but in particular the areas of Manshiyet Nasser, Torah, Helwan, Barageel, and Ezbet el-Nakhl.”

“This project targets everyone,” echoes Saber. “We’re trying to impact garbage collectors, we’re trying to change people’s behavior. We’re even trying to influence the Ministry of Environmental Affairs.”  

As part of its five-year plan, the Spirit of Youth is also trying to set garbage collectors up with stable, reliable associates who would mutually benefit from trash separation, ensuring their encouragement. “We’re merging smaller, unofficial recycling workshops from the neighborhood with bigger, more recognized factories and plants,” says Ageib. “Besides being a civilized way to live and work, this will also create numerous jobs for people who really need them.”  

“Think of all that left over food that is thrown away and left to rot in the streets,” frowns Saber. “If we work with the garbage collectors and the factories, we can ensure that organic waste will be disposed of through environmentally responsible methods that won’t result in excess amounts of harmful gases.”

Oddly enough, the group’s first phase of the project is currently being implemented in Zamalek–an affluent neighborhood which, unlike Manshiyet Nasser, isn’t overshadowed by its towering mounds of trash. “We had previously worked with the Zamalek Social Services Development Association, we know the members and have worked with them before,” explains Keddeis, who hopes that initiating their project on familiar ground–and in an area not as commonly overlooked as their own–will pay off when it comes to raising awareness. “We’re talking to several stores and businesses in Zamalek, and we’ll hopefully get the support of some of the more prominent establishments.”

“Of course, we also hope the neighborhood’s residents will be responsive and show some interest in helping us out,” says Saber. “We depend strongly on that type of help, and look for it in every neighborhood we work in.”

Past experiences, though, have taught both Ageib and Saber to expect otherwise. “Sometimes, people can be uncooperative,” sighs Ageib. “They’ll ask ‘what’s in it for me,’ and ‘why should I root through my trash, that’s not my job.’ Sometimes they’ll ask us for money. Some people are immediately convinced. Others have to actually see their neighbors and trash men following procedure before they’ll be convinced.”

“It really depends on where you are,” says Saber. “We experienced a lot of that initial stubbornness and skepticism in al-Zawya al-Hamra for example. It’s a poor neighborhood and you don’t expect people to immediately respond to or understand what you’re trying to do. But we’ve seen that even a situation like that can be turned around, and like we said before, Al-Zawya Al-Hamra was for us, and for its residents too, I think, a great success.”

“People get excited about the idea of clean streets, and a lack of flies and trash on every corner,” says Ageib. “People want cleanliness. They just don’t know the best way of achieving it.”

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