Saturday, 14 November 2009

Garbage storytelling, by Leslie Wilson

I’m in a school, but not as visiting author this time. I’m with a group of waste management specialists (including my husband) who are visiting the Recycling School in Moqattam in Cairo. It’s an unusual, but exciting school. It caters for the boys of the Zabbaleen community of informal recyclers – they used to be informal garbage collectors – what we’d have once called rag-pickers - but things have moved on.

The Zabbaleen originally came to Cairo from the countryside, and started to work sorting through the refuse of the more prosperous neighbourhoods, picking out whatever could be recycled, and selling it to middlemen. They lived in shanties, with heaps of waste lying in front of the dwellings. Here the families sorted the refuse and the pigs rootled through to pick out the organic matter and eat it. It wasn’t a bad system, especially not the input of the pigs, who produced both meat and fertiliser, but it wasn’t very healthy, and child mortality was high. Enter Laila Iskandar, who started off the girls’ school here. The girls recycled clean paper and textiles and learned, at the same time, literacy and basic hygiene. Nowadays, you may well buy the handmade paper they make in outlets in the West – lovely paper in beautiful colours and patterns. Their textile products – recycled from industry’s offcuts - are selling to fashion outlets in Europe. The Zabbaleen are intelligent, resourceful people who have taken every opportunity that’s been given them and run with it. Some of the first graduates from the girls’ school have gone on to university.
So, twenty-seven years on from Laila’s first visit, things look very different. The Zabbaleen now have brick-built houses, from whose windows and balconies hang beautifully clean laundry. There are still people sorting refuse, but that is done, largely, in workshops, separate from the dwellings. And now much of the actual recycling is done in Moqattam, which means the Zabbaleen can sell plastic pellets on to factories, though in some instances they make plastic products too. We visit one of the recycling workshops, where a £50,000 machine melts the plastic into an endless sausage of curiously pleasing hot gunk and feeds it into an extruder, from which plastic spaghetti spews out into a cooling trough. The plastic pasta is then chopped up into pellets. This work was initiated, twenty years ago, with a grant from Oxfam.

The pigs, alas, have gone, sacrifices to official fear of swine ‘flu, and in their place goats forage among the rubbish instead, attractive animals that look interestedly at us with their slot-pupilled eyes. The goats aren’t as good converters as the pigs were; I get the feeling they’re on probation. The death of the pigs has been a heavy blow for the community. There are cats and dogs everywhere, sleeping in the noon sun, waiting for the darkness when they’ll hunt rats. I see a rat, sun-mummified, plastered on the middle of the street. In western landfill terms, the dogs and cats are rodent control.
And there are children everywhere, quite small children, who are workers. Some of them are carrying racks of puffed pitta bread off to shops and small cafés, some of them are helping their parents. To get these kids to school, you have to give them an incentive. You can’t just drag them away from work and impoverish the family. That was why the first school, for girls, did the paper and textile recycling. Hence the Recycling School for the boys. The work the boys do is to sort plastic bottles. There’s a huge, crude faking industry in the developing world. Empty shampoo bottles get refilled with Nile water and detergent and sold as the original product. For this reason, if the bottles are ground up, it’s great news for the producers, and they’ll pay for this to be done. In addition, the school sells the plastic chips on to the recycling workshop.
The boys come to Recycling School when they can. They learn Montessori method, incidentally. Their incentive to learn to read is to enable them to read the labels on the bottles; ‘Head and Shoulders’ is their starting point. The incentive to learn maths is that they need to keep a tally of how many bottles they collect in order to get paid. But they don’t just add them up – they make Excel spreadsheets. Other learning happens along the way. It’s hoped that boys, too, will carry their education on to university level.

The first time I heard Laila Iskandar was in 2005, when she was talking to a conference in Sardinia about the Zabbaleen’s problems. The trouble is that the Cairo municipality would like to do away with waste pickers, with their messy carts (formerly pulled by donkeys) piled with mixed refuse, and replace them with nice clean refuse vehicles and wheelie bins. The foreign companies who are operating this system use a smart modern landfill and recycle, we’re told, less than the Zabbaleen, who achieve an 80% recycling rate (compare this with England’s average of 36.8% and best figure of 60%) This has put huge pressure on the Zabbaleen because their source material is being schlepped off to landfill. It’s also a huge shame environmentally and a shame to us in the industrialised North for the false ideas of what is desirable that we’ve passed on to developing countries. But with the help of a generous grant from the Bill Gates Foundation, it’s hoped that they will be able to negotiate with the municipality and establish themselves as viable contractors.

But why do I feel so excited about the Zabbaleen and concerned about their future? Because of Laila’s superb storytelling skills. I went on the trip to Moqattam because she’d engaged me when I heard her in Sardinia. Meanwhile her niece, Mai Iskander, has made a film about three of the community’s boys, Garbage Dreams which has won an Al Gore award. I’ve seen it and it’s totally engaging and fascinating. More storytelling. That’s why I’m blogging about them today, because it shows how important storytelling is, not just to entertain people, but to tell stories about people who’d otherwise go quite unheard. I hope I haven’t got anything too drastically wrong, but I’ve sent Laila the link for this blog, so if I have, she can correct me.
Photographs by David Wilson


Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Leslie this is an absolutely wonderful story... a true phoenix rising from squalor. I saw the Zabbaleen when I was last in Cairo 12 years ago. They were still living in amongst the garbage then between the fallen walls of Cairo under pieces of plastic and cardboard boxes. Your Laila sounds an incredible human being to be able to imbue so many people with such energy.

A pity your blog has come up on a Saturday. I think fewer people seem to read the Sat blog. It would be interesting to look at the response stat on this. I hope I'm wrong because its such a wonderful story of regeneration... Garbage Dreams sounds like a far more exciting option than the UK's reality TV!

Penny said...

Such a great post, Lesley! Thank you so much for giving such a moving and positive account of the Zabaleen story.

catdownunder said...

My 'day' job is related to aid work and this is the sort of story I wish more people would share. Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

Gillian Philip said...

This was fascinating, Leslie. I'll never forget meeting the dump dwellers in the Transkei (when it existed), twenty years ago. Unfortunately I'm not a Laila, and did nothing about it beyond writing a couple of articles. This is a tremendous story.

Leila said...

Brilliant article! :)