Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Egypt Deals With The Aftermath of Killing The Country's 300,000 Pigs

Quite a while ago, I did a blog about Afghanistan's plan to kill the only pig in the country. Pig (the name of the little porcine) lived in a zoo; and, his fate was hanging in the balance due to an overreaction by the Afghani people about the dangers of swine flu. I also mentioned that Egypt (in a seemingly similar overreaction) planned to kill over 300,000 pigs in an attempt to prevent swine flu entering the country.

Many of Egypt's zabaleen believed Egypt had a hidden agenda behind the wiping out of all pigs in a predominately Muslim country. They feel the Egyptian government had a two-pronged reason for the pig cull. First, Egypt is predominately Muslim and Islam prevents the eating of pork. The zabaleen are the minority Christian segment that raised pigs and ate them. Second, the zabaleen feel it a covert attempt to destroy their livlihoods; and, eventually, their way of life.

The result of this pig cull was not what the Egyptian government had in mind.

Photo courtesy: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times. Pigs were the champion garbage consumers in Cairo. Other animals just don't seem up to the task.

“They killed the pigs, let them clean the city,” said Moussa Rateb, a former garbage collector and pig owner who lives in the community of the zabaleen. “Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration.”

The country's zabaleen are on strike and the streets of Egypt tell the tale. When the Egyptian government killed all the pigs, they effectively wiped out the zabaleens' way of life; and, the zabaleen are angry.

Who are the zabaleen and how does killing all Egypt's pigs lead to this kind of garbage in the streets? It's a story of religion and intrigue in Cairo.

Egypt does not have a sanitary department that goes from house to house collecting garbage. In fact, Egypt does not have much of a garbage collection system other than the zabaleen.

For more than half a century, the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of Cairo have gone door to door collecting the city's garbage. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs. Eventually, they slaughtered the pigs and ate them.

But the garbage crisis should not have come as a surprise.

When the government killed all the pigs in Egypt this spring, it was warned the city would be overwhelmed with trash. And here is where the intrigue begins.

The government publicly stated that the pigs were being killed in an attempt to combat swine flu; and, prevent it from entering the country.

The zabaleen say it was an attempt to undermine their way of life, eradicate all pigs in Egypt because Islam prohibits the eating of pork; and, eventually, erase the zabaleen themselves.

The situation as it exists today is that rotting food is piling up on the streets of middle-class neighbourhoods like Heliopolis as well as the streets of poor communities such as Embaba.

Ramadan Hediya, 35, who makes deliveries for a supermarket, lives in Madinat el Salam, a low-income community on the outskirts of Cairo.

“The whole area is trash,” Mr. Hediya said. “All the pathways are full of trash. When you open up your window to breathe, you find garbage heaps on the ground.”

Photo courtesy: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times. A zabaleen carrying a load of cardboard. The zabaleen no longer go door to door collecting organic waste, which they fed to pigs.

Basically speaking, services are delivered in Egypt one of two ways: the government system or the do-it-yourself system. Instead of becoming embroiled in Egypt's infamous bureaucracy, most people rely on an informal system of personal contacts, bribes, favours and any other means necessary to get building permits, pass an inspection, get a driver's license, get garbage collected or make a living.

“The straight and narrow path is just too bureaucratic and burdensome for the rich person, and for the poor, the formal system does not provide him with survival, it does not give him safety, security or meet his needs,” said Laila Iskandar Kamel, chairwoman of a community development organization in Cairo.

When asked about the pig cull, Ms. Kamel said this: “was the stupidest thing they ever did. This is just one more example of poorly informed decision makers.”

“The main problem in Egypt is follow-up,” said Sabir Abdel Aziz Galal, chief of the infectious disease department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “A decision is taken, there is follow-up for a period of time, but after that, they get busy with something else and forget about it. This is the case with everything.”

When swine flu fear first emerged President Hosni Mubarak ordered all the pigs killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease. It should be pointed out that not one case of swine flu had been reported in Egypt at this time.

Health officials worldwide determined that the virus was not spread by pigs and the Egyptian officials changed the story. The new reason for the cull was about cleaning up the zabaleen's over-crowded, garbage-strewn neighbourhood.

That was in May.

The pigs are gone; the streets of Cairo and other cities are awash in rotting organic matter; the zabaleens still live in squalor; and, Egypt is sinking in its own garbage.

“The problem is clear in the streets,” said Haitham Kamal, a spokesman for the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs. “There is a strict and intensive effort now from the state to address this issue.”

Photo courtesy: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times
A woman picked through garbage in Cairo. A delicate balance of trash collecting has been upset, and garbage is everywhere.

In an attempt to clean up the garbage, the government hired multinational garbage companies. These companies decided that the best method would be to set up garbage bins all over the city; but, they did not count on the mindset of the city's inhabitants. People were not used to removing their own garbage, they were used to their garbage being collected at their front door.

The zabaleen still collect some garbage; but, they are sticking to their pledge not to dispose of 99% of the organic waste. Since their pigs have been killed, they own only a few goats now; and, their need for organic waste is almost non-existent.

Instead they dump the organic refuse wherever they can; or, at best, pile it beside trash bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have failed miserably at keeping up with the refuse.

And; then, just when you thought matters couldn't get any worse for the beleaguered Egyptian people, along comes a strike by the employees of one of the multinational companies. The men and women in green uniforms with crude brooms who are dispatched around the city stopped working in a dispute with the city.

The government says that the dispute has been resolved, but nothing has been done to repair the damage to the informal system that once had the zabaleen take Cairo’s trash home.

The garbage is only the latest example of the state’s struggling to meet the needs of its citizens, needs as basic as providing water, housing, health care and education.

Who knows where this will end. World organizations may have to step in due to the very real danger of plagues and other deadly virus' taking hold of an unsuspecting and vulnerable population.

A video showing the zabaleen, their pigs and their lifestyle before the Egyptian government slaughtered all the pigs. Things have worsened since the pig cull.

Via: The New York Times

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