Cairo, Egypt, is one of the world’s largest metropolises.
Many people associate Cairo with the Giza Pyramids, with one of the most impressive national museum collections in the world, and with the more recent iconic images of protests in Tahrir Square during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring.
If you have visited Cairo, thoughts of the city will readily conjure memories of pollution, crowded streets and crazy drivers.
But something else that distinguishes Cairo, which we are unlikely to notice if no one points it out to us, is its garbage collection system.
Most of the garbage collection in this megacity is done by the 60,000 residents of a community on the outskirts of the city that is referred to popularly as Hay al-Zabbaleen, or “Garbage City.”
This community is mostly Coptic Orthodox Christian and has for decades lived off of the profits from collecting and recycling the city’s waste.
“Garbage Dreams,” a documentary produced by PBS, describes this Christian initiative.
“With a population of 18 million, Cairo – the largest city in the Middle East and Africa – has no sanitation service,” the film observes. “For generations, the city’s residents have paid the Zabbaleen a minimal amount to collect and recycle their garbage.”
The description continued, “Each day, the Zabbaleen collect more than 4,000 tons of garbage and bring it for processing in their village, where plastic granulators, cloth-grinders and paper and cardboard compactors hum constantly. As the world’s capacity to generate trash skyrockets, Western cities boast of 30 percent recycling rates – admirable, until you compare it with the 80 percent recycling rate the Zabbaleen can claim.”
A Brazilian, who goes by the name of Pedro do Borel, recently spent some time in Egypt. While there, he became friends with some Zabbaleen.
He was immediately impressed by their sense of dignity and hospitality, the way they kept their homes clean, and how – even though they spent their working hours literally neck-deep in stinky trash – they dressed stylishly and maintained excellent personal hygiene.
Pedro also realized that the Zabbaleen made quite a decent profit from recycling other people’s waste.
Having spent most of his career working in a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he was accustomed to tiptoeing around rubbish on the streets as well as to the disgust many of the favela’s residents felt about the trash that regularly accumulated on their streets and alleyways.
The thought that a Christian community could live well from garbage, taking pride in their work, intrigued him.
So Pedro went to Scriptures to study what Jesus had to say about trash. As he read the Bible, a verse caught his eye. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4).
He realized this verse was referring to Jesus and concluded that, if Jesus Christ was willing to take on humanity’s pain and suffering, Christ was, in a sense, “the Great Trash Collector.”
If Jesus Christ was a trash collector, then certainly there is no shame in it, Pedro concluded.
Humans should be willing to take on a bit of trash and even find honor in doing something that others might see as self-deprecating.
He went back to Brazil inspired to find a way to clean up Borel, the favela where he worked in Rio, and to do it in a way that provided a livelihood with dignity for its residents.
If Cairo’s Christians could find honor in trash, then certainly Rio’s Christian slum dwellers could do the same.
Pedro had taken copious notes as he shadowed his Zabbaleen friends, and in 2013 he used some seed funds to rent a warehouse in the Borel favela and buy a van and a trash compactor.
He shared his vision with some of his friends living in the favela, people who he knew could really use a job.
They would be trained in recycling techniques, then drive around the favela to rummage through rubbish heaps in search for recyclables, bringing them back to the warehouse to sort, then sell them to local businesses which would pay by weight for plastics, papers, metals or other types of raw materials.
Most of the people who Pedro tried to recruit turned down the work because the idea of spending the day in rubbish disgusted them, but he found a few people willing to try their hand at a new career.
His team of five now lives off of the profits from the recycling.
The warehouse smells and looks clean, and their van is as fresh as new.
The project is slowly growing, and Pedro is hoping that some of the stigma attached to trash will diminish as other residents of Borel see the employees of the project, called TÃ¡ Limpo (“It’s Clean”), begin to build better houses, buy nicer clothes and send their kids to school looking well-fed and smelling clean.
They are already beginning to improve their lifestyles, thanks to their recycling profits.
Pedro is now hoping to find a way to bring some of his friends from Cairo to visit Rio.
He wants Cairo’s professional and highly experienced trash collectors and recyclers to train and inspire his Brazilian team, and he wants Christians in Brazil to learn to get their hands dirty and find their honor in Christ, the way that he sees that Cairo’s Christians have learned to do.
Kathryn Kraft is lecturer in international development at the University of East London and an associate faculty member at the Institute of Middle East Studies in Beirut, Lebanon. Previously, she worked as a technical advisor and program manager for development and aid agencies in a variety of regions of the world and is the author of “Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Middle East.” A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @katiworonka.