Monday, October 8, 2012
Manshiyat Naser: Cairo’s Garbage City
Manshiyat Naser: Cairo’s Garbage City
Preface: I gathered the information for this piece during a recent visit to Manshiyat Naser, Cairo’s Garbage City. Through a chance encounter I was included on a private tour of the city, and its recycling process by one of its own. Our guide, Bekhit, took the four of us in a car through the maze of streets to the city’s Coptic monastery, the cornerstone of the community, and from that sanctuary led down us into the city on foot. The walking with Bekhit gave me a rare opportunity to view this marginalized community. I was able to interact with its inhabitants who graciously allowed me to observe and photograph their lives, work, and their environment. Their humanity of humbled me. This piece presents both my initial reactions, and subsequent perceptions of the city and its occupants
Part I: My Initial Reaction to Manshiyat Naser.
My brain struggled to comprehend what the eyes and nose are relaying to it. I have never seen poverty like Cairo’s Garbage City, and will never see anything like it again unless I return. There is nothing so total and encompassing. It is a shock to the senses in every way. The scope of the garbage is unfathomable. It is endless and continues to grow. In order to keep my composure I had to continually remind myself, ‘I have a life independent of this place.’
Utter squalor and crippling poverty are not powerful enough words to capture the true nature of Manshiyat Naser. The garbage is absorbed into the fabric of the city. Taken into the occupant’s home, scattered about the living areas and picked over in hopes of finding anything of value. The open doors of the apartments reveal fetid foyers and stairways, buried in garbage, holding bays for the filth that flows into and out of the family living spaces. My mental images of the City are heart wrenching. Mothers with their infants, filthy and in torn clothing, squatting in the piles of trash they are picking through. Groups of children, obscured by the garbage that fills every orifice of the city, nibble on scraps of food as they peak from behind the dilapidated facades of their homes. Men, women and children live in, on, and under the garbage. It is raw, it is putrid, it is alive with pests and growth, and it is taken in willingly.
The noxious from fumes from the torrents of refuse burn your nostrils and eyes. It pours into your mouth every time you open it in astonishment. The stench strangles you as the body restricts airflow through the throat in an effort to prevent further exposure to the putrid air. You smell the city with your lungs. The hazy cloud of stench clings to your clothing, hair, and skin. Hours later I could still smell the garbage, it stained the inside of my mouth and nostrils.
Part II: Reflection on Manshiyat Naser.
Manshiyat Naser, the Garbage City, is a district on the outskirts of Cairo that began as an impromptu settlement for one of Cairo’s Coptic community. Originally poor farmers, this penniless community immigrated to Cairo in hopes of steady wages. Impoverished and desperate for income, they began processing Cairo’s trash. Initially the Coptic community was not paid for their services to Cairo, however, they managed to derive income from Cairo’s raw garbage by developing a system of recycling.In their effort to find value in trash, this community created one of the most effective recycling processes in the world with an efficiency of over 80%.
Different areas of the community adapted to handle specific types of refuse. One neighborhood might specialize in processing plastics while another metal or organic waste. The recycling process begins once the raw garbage has been sorted accordingly. As the raw garbage is processed, it moves up the refining sequence until it becomes a marketable material. In the case of plastics, the material is sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted down, extruded, cut into plastic pellets, packaged into forty-kilogram bags, and sold for four Egyptian Pounds per kilogram. The money that is generated from the recycled material is what keeps the Garbage City alive and what makes the whole process worthwhile.
There is a social hierarchy within this community that follows the material specialization and is reflected in the flow of refuse. However, this hierarchy does not shield the upper ends of society from the harsh conditions of a life amid garbage. The workers at every stage of the process are subjected to deplorable working conditions.
Bekhit took me to a workshop where the cleaned and shredded plastic is turned into pellets. The working conditions blew me away. During this final stage in the recycling process, workers are exposed, for hours on end, to the noxious fumes of melting and extruding plastic. They work in poorly ventilated and dimly lit workshops with ramshackle, and extremely dangerous machines that run endlessly. Coptic images and bloody handprints adorn the walls and machinery of this toxic workshop. These decorations seem remind the works that though the occupation is killing them they may still be rewarded.
Manshiyat Naser grew to meet the needs of its occupants. Its infrastructure is piecemeal and chronically deficient in running water, sewer systems, and electricity. The lack of planning resulted in a maze of streets the wind through the neighborhoods. The vast majority of these streets are unpaved, and slick from the slow seep of liquefying garbage. Pockmarked and carpeted with litter, the city’s handful of poorly paved streets are hardly distinguishable from the rest. Even the widest streets have been choked down to one lane by the accumulation of garbage. Still this maze is alive with activity. The streets are jammed with mule drawn carts and trucks hauling teetering loads to and from Manshiyat Naser. These warn out streets nourish the Garbage City’s industry and its plague.
Most in this community have lived their entire lives in Manshiyat Naser, and will continue to exist there until they die. Many will never see the rest of Cairo, never know what the Pyramids or Sphinx look like, and never care. They have no means or reason to leave. For them there is no world outside of Manshiyat Naser. Their lives exist within the context of trash.
However, walking the streets made me aware of the incredible sense of community and warmth in the city. I saw the playfulness of the city’s children, watched shock of seeing an American walking the streets of the city melt into to curiosity. I was showered excited ‘hellos’ and ‘welcomes.’ My big smile and energetic wave sealed our new friendship. Even the old men, hardened from their years amidst the garbage, brightened and returned my salutations.
For the people of the Garbage City life goes on. Amongst the spires of refuse shopkeepers tend to their livelihood taking no notice of his surroundings. Next to the store selling packaged snacks, water, shampoo, and batteries, a dry cleaner irons shirts, and a food vender displays his food. These people incorporate the piles of trash into their businesses, using it as a place prop up stands or boxes of fruit. This normality of life in is shocking.