It is – unfortunately – not news that in some places (including First World countries) children and adults dig through trash cans or garbage dumps looking for something to eat or for cast-off goods that might be used or sold. There is no story, however, that quite compares to that of the Egyptian Zabbaleen or “garbage people” for sheer industry and inventiveness. From the 1940s these people ran 120 micro-enterprises that collected and recycled Cairo’s garbage. This was the Zabbaleen’s creative solution to the need for jobs and income when farming ceased to be a viable for them.
There was as you might imagine a downside: social stigma, subsistence and disease. Garbage collecting did, however, offer something of a living to an estimated 60,000 – 70,000 people and what these people did was quite remarkable. In fact, it was unique in all the world. They recycled 80-85% of the garbage, which is where their income came from. Most Western countries recycle about 20-25% of garbage.
In 2005, Egypt hired private contractors from Spain and Italy to bring in huge trucks and cart garbage to landfills. This move along with others made in the name of modernization and Westernization cost the Zabbaleen dearly and, in fact, in the end all of Cairo suffered for this decision.
I first learned the story of the Zabbaleen from Mai Iskander’s award-winning feature-length film Garbage Dreams, which aired on the PBS Independent Lens program for Earth Day in 2010. While the context and culture of the story is unique, the experience of losing one’s livelihood to corporate giants, funding cuts, social or technological change or other conditions is all too commonplace. Almost all of us and our communities have been touched – if not devastated – and sometimes recreated by such experience.
Some people are remarkably resourceful and inspiring, like the Zabbaleen when they transitioned from farming to garbage collection. During The Depression, my own father’s import & export business was failing. He got the idea to tell the furriers in the neighborhood that he would clean their offices at night. He made them an offer “they couldn’t refuse.” Then, in the same spirit as the Zabbaleen, while he handled the factory and office maintenance, he’d sort through the trash and save all the tossed away bits of fur. He made them into little bow-ties and earings and little mink teddy bears and sold them to Macy’s. Even in a depression there are people with enough money to buy useless luxury tchotchkes, so that’s the market he went after. He eventually became a furrier.
WRITING PROMPT: Write a poem, short story or article about the impact of job loss on an individual, family or community. This might be a poem about someone’s grief over job loss or how they reinvented themselves in the face of hard times. It might be a short story about family dynamics in the aftermath of financial catastrophe. Or, it might be an article about your own community and how it survived (or not) the loss of a company or industry that was once the foundation of your town’s economy. Is there a story in your heart or your own back yard that until now you hadn’t thought of telling?