By Claire A. Williams, USA
Because I over-think everything, when I see something particularly sad, it can sometimes take me forever to keep it from flashing through my mind at random, unwelcome moments. I still remember the dog ears I saw in Nicaragua so riddled with ticks that I thought they were sand, and the mother screaming and hitting her child in the parking lot of a Nevada McDonald’s over a decade ago.
Sometimes the poverty and sadness I see on my trip around the world become overwhelming. However, these things do happen everywhere, in the countries I travel through and in some Bay Area streets. But there’s something about being on the road that allows me to see more distinctly than when at home.
Today I went to Garbage City, a poor Caireene slum populated by the city’s garbage workers, mostly Christian migrants from Upper Egypt.
In some developing nations, pigs are an integral part of the garbage collecting process. Not only can they act as natural recyclers, but families who work in garbage collection can easily raise such animals on the scraps that abound.
Because the Muslim faith prevents its followers from working with the pigs, a particularly large percentage of the trade’s workers identify as Christians.
Garbage city is home to upwards of 15,000 people and a handful of churches, most notably the Church of St. Simeon, which can hold 20,000 in its dramatic amphitheatre carved into the caves.
I had heard about Garbage City and felt fortunate when my host at Cairo’s Windsor Hotel said she knew someone who worked with one of the City’s most prominent organizations: Association for the Protection of the Environment. Several phone calls later, we found ourselves riding to the Association one Tuesday morning with three volunteers who have more than 40 years of service under their collective belt.
Although the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) is a secular organization, most of the volunteers are Christian, and Garbage City itself is populated by perhaps 90% Christians (as opposed to 20% of the general Cairenne population), one volunteer at the Association guesses. At the Association, women of Tova, Cairo—the poorest section of Garbage City—get good jobs for good wages.
In my morning there, I tried to learn as much as I could without getting in the way. I shopped in the shop where the women sell paper products and all manner of sewing and embroidered goods made from recycled sources. I went to the kids’ club, and wandered around the surrounding community.
Everywhere I went, the smell followed me. Everyone knows the smell of garbage, be it from a bag or a dumpster. In Garbage City, where garbage is everything, they rightly say that you begin smelling the ‘sick sweetness’ if you’re anywhere nearby. When inside the wall-less city limits, the stench never leaves. Unable to imagine how people get used to it, I tried to find refuge in the Association’s four-acre garden.
While sitting in the garden, I once again learned that even the smallest things happen as they should. Wandering for a place to sit, I found an overturned pot where the breeze was blowing right and the garbage wasn’t so pungent. Just then, the gardener came and gave me new basil he had just cut. I smelled it, and held it, and thought about how having the basil was one of the ways to live in a place that smells so strongly of something you do not want.
And with the garbage in the air, but the basil in my hand, it was not quite as bad. I worried that this might mean I was not experiencing the full moment, and that somehow I had hidden the reality of Garbage City with my makeshift air freshener. But diffusing the pungent air with basil, tempering the garbage with basil, can’t be all bad if it means that I could sit there longer.