Trash or treasure: Egypt's poorest decide

CAIRO — You smell it before you see it. The stench of all the waste produced by Africa's most populous city, compressed into a few square blocks, sure can travel.

The roads are narrow — barely wide enough for one car to pass — and the buildings, up to 10 stories tall, loom over the streets, trapping the odors. When the midday sun beats down, the smell is unbearable.

The garbage in Manshiyat Nasser, or "Garbage City," as it is popularly known, flows out the doors of apartment buildings. In other places, it is stacked to the second or third floor.

But while most non-residents would look at Manshiyat Nasser and see only the most slum-like of Cairo's neighborhoods, those who live here see the potential for money-making.

Even here, however, the failing global economy is leaving its mark. Now, the men and women of Garbage City are working harder than ever to make this filthy, demeaning and often dangerous lifestyle pay.

All day and much of the night they crouch in mounds of trash, sorting through the refuse of the city's more than 18 million people. Their children, some no older than 4, look on, seemingly oblivious to the scores of flies on their faces.

“I work with plastics,” said Milad William, a 52-year-old garbage sorter who has lived here all his life. “The money is alright and I don't even notice the smell anymore.”

But William acknowledged that the economy here has gone sour in the last several months.

“The economy used to be better, but in the last few months, I'm making less,” he said.

William's street-side workplace shows a day's work half-finished. He sits between two piles, one of unsorted filth and the other of the plastic he's dug out — water bottles, children's toys, scraps.

He'll then sell what he finds to wholesalers who will whisk the garbage away for processing.

And this is where the trouble with the global economy lies. Though the garbage sorters don't report any decrease in the inflow of trash, they say they've had trouble selling what they pick up. And what they do manage to sell, they've been selling for less.

“It's harder to sell what I collect,” said a metal scrap seller who only gave the name Aissa. “And there isn't a lot of money here, anyways.”

Garbage City runs into the Katamaya hills, a series of soaring cliffs that defines Cairo's eastern edge. It's not far from where a rockslide killed 100 people and flattened an entire village last year.

The people here are almost all Coptic Christian, unusual for a country that is 90 percent Muslim.

Regardless, Garbage City is still representative of Cairo's most-disenfranchised community. Because of this, and because of the unique industry run out of here, it has recently received some notoriety. Tourists cruise the streets, while journalists and filmmakers are not uncommon sights.

“People come and take lots of photos. It used to bother me, but it doesn't anymore,” said Adel William, Milad's brother. “But it still bothers a lot of people.”

With the public attention has come a raft of aid organizations looking to improve the neighborhood's health conditions and lift residents out of poverty.

Despite improvements, the organizations have failed to move people in the neighborhood away from the garbage trade, which is a leading cause of illness among children here.

The global recession represents a major setback for these groups, though the government doesn't seem to be doing its part either.

“The government used to be better,” Milad William said. “Ten years ago they were better, we'd see them here all the time, but now they've gotten lazy.”

Magdy Sobhy is an economist at a leading Egyptian research institute, the Ahram Center. He has studied the plight of the lower classes and is familiar with conditions in Garbage City.

“NGOs have made a difference,” he said. “But in the end, it's the government programs that can make the biggest difference.”

Sobhy offered a pessimistic assessment of the possibility for change in light of the economic crisis.

“You will have a growth rate [in the Egyptian economy] that will be less than half in 2009 of what it was last year,” he said. “I think it will be a setback for the lower classes. You will see a decrease in the quality of living for the poor.”

While many continue to clamor for action to clean up the neighborhood, the residents seem content with the cards they've been dealt. So while many wait for better times, an improved economy may be critical to the survival of those living in Garbage City.

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