For Egypt's Christians, pig cull has lasting effects
Reacting to swine flu by slaughtering pigs, Cairo upends a key part of its service economy – Christian trash collectors.
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Qadees, who is 26, has worked in garbage since he was 8 years old. Every day he walks the fetid slum streets buying plastic bottles from other zebaleen for 17 cents a kilo and selling them to recycling centers for 19 cents. Before the pigs were killed, he also had a night job unloading a neighbor's garbage truck.Skip to next paragraph
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But now, he says, "the garbage trucks have stopped coming in as much and we don't see the normal garbage we used to from people's houses. They bring in cardboard and plastic but there is less of everything now."
His income has dropped by half since May, to $98 a month, and now he fears he will never be able to afford marriage. In Egypt, few weddings happen unless the groom can provide an apartment and furniture. Qadees has neither. He lives in one dim room with his brother, and for almost 10 years has been building his own apartment in his family's building, brick by brick. He was engaged once, but his fiancée left him for a wealthier man.
In the building next door, Khalil is also building an apartment for his wife and four children, one brick at a time. It will be on the roof of the family home, which is now strewn with trash and inhabited by 10 thin goats. In the meantime they sleep in a grimy, ground-floor room surrounded by piles of garbage that are infested with large rats.
Khalil worries that without work his plans will fall apart: The apartment may not be finished and he has to save for dowries for his three daughters. His oldest, 10-year-old Rania, is the only one in school, but with tuition running at almost $4.50 a month she may need to drop out.
"Work has slowed down so much now," says Khalil, "No one knows what is going to happen to us."
Looking for creative solutions
Garbage and pigs have gone hand in hand since the zebaleen first arrived in Cairo in the 1940s, says Guindy. Then, too, it was a city with a garbage problem.
In the early 20th century, trash was collected by wahis, migrants from the desert oases, who dried it in the sun and resold it as kindling. But such sales were outlawed in the 1940s, turning trash collection upside down just as the city began to rapidly grow.
The wahis teamed up with new Christian migrants from rural Egypt, who brought the practice of feeding garbage to livestock, says Guindy. It was a creative suggestion that made the most of everyone's skills, he says, and there may be similar solutions to today's pig crisis.
To Guindy the solution is clear: People must focus on goats and recycling.
The neighborhood is full of recycling workshops, large and small, and people will be forced to rely on them for income. He worries this will mean more kids working on the street and fewer in school, compounding the community's 65 percent illiteracy rate.
"People will need all their sons to go out into the streets to search for recyclable material," he says.
And goats, he says, may substitute for the pigs. Never picky eaters, more of them can be seen in the neighborhood since May, gnawing old sandals and delicately chewing loose-leaf paper. Guindy says there are 15,000 here now and that "anyone who has the ability to buy them will do it."
But the zebaleen have been badly bruised by the government. Unsettling rumors ricochet from trash heap to trash heap: The government will ban slum recycling, it will ban plastic, it will ban them from keeping animals.
All the talk weighs heavily on a man like Khalil.
"None of us know what to do," he says. "People are hungry and soon they will starve. We have no work. Isn't that an epidemic, too?"