Garbage City, or Manshiyat Nasr in Arabic, is a neighborhood in Cairo housing 200,000 Egyptians, most of whom are Coptic Christians. It’s also a garbage dump. The streets are littered with piles and piles of garbage, trucks are packed to the absolute rim transporting garbage into and out of the neighborhood, and the people in this neighborhood make their living off sorting through the rubbish.
This neighborhood is a essentially result of the poor planning of a garbage system in Cairo. The Zabaleen, or the people that live in this neighborhood, are the city’s garbage collectors. These Zabaleen are descendants of farmers who migrated from Upper Egypt to Cairo in the 1940s, looking for work.
Men transport the garbage back to Garbage City via donkey-carts or tucks, and women and children sort it. Though it may seem rather inefficient for a Cairo, a city of 24 million people, but in fact it’s the opposite. The Zabaleen recycle almost 90% of the garbage, which is four times that of the recycled material in the West! However, recently, the Egyptian government have hired private companies to collect the garbage around Cairo, which the Zabaleen must compete with.
Living conditions are quite poor, some houses do not even have running water or electricity. But walking through the neighborhood, you could tell that people made do. Children were playing barefoot in the streets. Teenagers hung out at street corners. Mothers bought groceries with their babies. Everybody was out and about and very eager to welcome us to their neighborhood.
Also, since it’s a Christian neighborhood, churches could be found at almost every turn. In fact, Garbage City is the home to the largest church in the Middle East: the Monastery of Saint Simon, or the Cave Church. It’s literally built into the mountain of Mokkattam and can seat 20,000 people.
Walking through this neighborhood was quite profound. I’ve never witnessed such poverty, and the fact that this neighborhood is located only 30 minutes from my own in Cairo is really grounding. Right when we entered the neighbored, we experienced the reality of what slum life looked like. The smell of garbage engulfed us as we walked past garbage littered across the streets or bags and bags of garbage piled on the sides of the roads. Animals were living first floor structures, possibly apartments, or and dead animals were found at some crossroads as well.
But under all the garbage, the dirt, and the grime, are real, friendly people, who warmly welcomed us to their neighborhood.