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Stephen Eric Bronner writes: "Many will say, albeit sadly, that the entire economy is a wreck and that there are issues more important that the plight of 40,000 garbage people. Others will insist that outrage is a product of alien attitudes and that it is illegitimate for outsiders to demand solutions: such poverty is - after all - 'normal' in the region. Every city has its poor section, its slum, its ghetto. World travelers will surely note that worse (sic!) horrors can be found in the hellholes of Brazil, China, Congo, Darfur, India, Indonesia or God knows where. An excuse always exists to avoid redressing the inexcusable. It doesn't take much to shift the viewer's gaze from the matter at hand."

A scene from 'Garbage Dreams,' a documentary film about Mokattam, a suburb of Cairo known for its poor residents who live among tall piles of garbage. (photo:
A scene from 'Garbage Dreams,' a documentary film about Mokattam, a suburb of Cairo known for its poor residents who live among tall piles of garbage. (photo:

Garbage People

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

23 May 11

Reader Supported News | Perspective


few weeks ago I was in Cairo with a delegation from US Academics for Peace. Trite as it sounds, we had a fascinating driver. He was a Coptic Christian who applauded the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his coterie. He accompanied us to the huge and thrilling demonstrations of May 1 in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the democratic revolution, and he talked with us about events that have lately reached the press: the fear of military rule, the rise in crime, the lack of tourists, the collapse of social services, and - most strikingly - the indifference of the selectively present police to assaults upon Christians and other minorities. When we were alone, our driver made me a proposal. He said that if I promised not to mention his name, and write about what I saw, he would take my wife and me on a little excursion to a neighborhood known as "the garbage village."

Cairo is a densely populated metropolis with about 18 million residents that is growing by 1,000 residents per day. It's the largest city in Africa, and it's filthy. The banks of its many brooks, the crevices of its many streets, and even its richer sections are littered with refuse. Our driver noted that fact as we approached our destination. Upon entering the garbage village, hanging from a few buildings we saw large banners with the faces of nine young men killed in assaults by Muslim mobs (that any number of imams later condemned). Above, in the huge caverns of the adjacent mountains, newly adorned with immense carvings of Biblical scenes, churches were built that can hold 10,000 parishioners. These places of worship perhaps offer some solace. Nevertheless, they tower over an insult both to God and humanity.

Poverty has never subscribed to any particular faith. It works on Christians and Muslims alike. Nearly fourteen million residents of Cairo are "poor," four million don't have potable water, three million lack access to a sewage system, and two million are "destitute." But the degree of misery experienced by the 40,000 residents of this garbage village is something special. Its residents collect most of Cairo's trash. The overwhelming majority of them are Coptic Christians who originally raised pigs that fed on the garbage. Spurred by a wave of Islamic fanaticism and fear of swine flu, however, 300,000 animals were slaughtered in 2009 - though no case of the disease was ever documented. Only a few diseased goats now wander about this garbage village composed of ramshackle houses, cheerless cafes, empty shops, and a commercial life powered by refuse. With the waste disposal system privatized, indeed, garbage freely follows the path of the commodity form. Carts dragged by emaciated donkeys, and ancient trucks carry the trash into the village where families living in overstuffed apartments sort it, bind it and prepare it for sale. The product is then taken to recycling plants and resold, thereby creating more garbage in what amounts to a circular process highlighted by exploitation and despair.

Garbage blurs the line between public and private space. It sets the stage on which individuals play out their lives. Its stink fills the air that the garbage people breathe. It lures the swarming flies whose vast number blurs the vision. It carries the germs that produce the countless diseases. It intensifies the already searing heat that often reaches 110 and sparks fires here and there. Grungy children play in the garbage. Wives cook food, wash clothes, and give birth surrounded by garbage. Men work amid the garbage, smoke their hookahs amid the garbage, laugh and cry amid the garbage. Old people with vapid eyes watch listlessly as the garbage is stacked ever higher in the suffocating alleys. Everyone looks as if they are simply waiting to die amid the vermin and the stench and the heat and the dust.

But is the garbage village really such an affront to human dignity? Democratic revolution is underway: there is a new state to be built, a bureaucracy to be purged, an army to be dealt with. Many will say, albeit sadly, that the entire economy is a wreck and that there are issues more important that the plight of 40,000 garbage people. Others will insist that outrage is a product of alien attitudes and that it is illegitimate for outsiders to demand solutions: such poverty is - after all - "normal" in the region. Every city has its poor section, its slum, its ghetto. World travelers will surely note that worse (sic!) horrors can be found in the hellholes of Brazil, China, Congo, Darfur, India, Indonesia or God knows where. An excuse always exists to avoid redressing the inexcusable. It doesn't take much to shift the viewer's gaze from the matter at hand. My memory of our driver and the garbage people is already growing dim. The only reminder is the lingering chill from the words written long ago by Bertolt Brecht:

And there are some who live in darkness
And there are others who live in light
And one sees those in the light
Those in the darkness disappear.

Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, as well as Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University. His books include "Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement" (Columbia University Press) and "A Rumor About the Jews: Anti-Semitism, Conspiracy, and the 'Protocols of Zion'" (Oxford University Press).

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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+14 # Activista 2011-05-23 19:58
The garbage is indicator of capitalism/cons umer society. Each large town in Mexico had garbage village - "visited" one by mistake in Mexico 30 year ago - the image never leaves.
How we are treating nature in USA and building concrete "suburbs" we are close to the garbage society - with luxury in our concrete "bunkers". Trees are cut to make the room for builders/profit.
Was wondering if Tripoli (we are bombing) has garbage village and how soon after the "liberation" there will be one.
+11 # Capn Canard 2011-05-24 09:16
A few years back I watched a documentary about people who live on a garbage dump in Guatemala City and realized what a complete disaster that Capitalism has created world wide. Long story short, we don't clean up our messes we just push it into the neighbor's front yard.
+4 # andrea valeria 2011-05-23 22:07
en.wikipedia.or g/wiki/The_Glea ners_and_I

have you see this movie, Le glaneuse, by agnes varda? You should, and then write another essay.
+21 # barkingcarpet 2011-05-23 22:21
There is no such place as "away" and garbage is just a waste of nature and life. Our rules, laws, and policy are insane, based on individual empire and profit, as we rip, shred and tear apart the systems which sustain life. All for disposable crap, a few dollars for the shareholders, and illness and slavery for the workers. Race to the bottom. Insanity.
+6 # Dave W. 2011-05-24 20:03
Barkingcarpet, If the Conservative "womb worshippers" have their way, young women won't be throwing self-aborted fetuses into dumpsters in the U.S. As soon as their big enough to walk they'll be "dumpster diving" in what will amount to be a vain attempt to stay alive. Of course, we mustn't raise taxes on the rich and we NEED to spend 300 MILLION dollars a day on the military. Capitalism, in its "pure" form amounts to nothing but mental illness. As the population of the earth continues to increase these "garbage people" will become a new breed of human. Perhaps a better one too. The "real" garbage in this world floats to the top.
+10 # sir edmund 2011-05-23 23:29
Dumpster week just ended at our local college campus, and i managed to dive every dumpster on campus at least once, collecting 4 or 5 truckloads of stuff.

Have been doing this every spring since i graduated 30 years ago, and the waste is still unbelievable. Recycling is minimal. enough perfectly good re usable stuff of all kinds is thrown out to outfit a major village or town.

Godess bless the gleaners, and you don't have to go to a third world country to find them.
-12 # boudreaux 2011-05-24 07:36
Just think of their immune systems, they look like they can fight any disease that is out there!!! I am saddened by what they have to do to live but to them it is normal and people in this country can learn alot about recycling from them, we throw away so much that is not recycled here and take so much for granted.
I have watched them on TV and they are not ashamed of the way that they have to live...bless them, that they are there and have chosen this way of life that helps out their environment. we could learn alot from them....
+8 # Glen 2011-05-24 13:04
"Chosen" their way of life? That must be why you got the thumbs down. There are increasing numbers of dumpster divers in the U.S. and believe me, most of them are not scavenging for the recycling or the fun of it. Remember when towns were poisoning dumps and dumpsters?

However, I do understand your comments on their immune systems - if they live past childhood.
+2 # Activista 2011-05-24 13:28
Image of capitalism/cons umer society above. Homo Destructor - name one other animal that comes close. Our values? materialistic CRAP. Our weapons - nuclear arms - able to destroy all life. SICK.
+3 # jwb110 2011-05-24 13:33
As awful as the situation is in Egypt and the many other countries mentioned and the Biblical statement that the "poor will always be with us", I am not so sure that the presents of this section of society might not prove effective in making sure that real change comes to Egypt. This os one of those issues of providing a fish or teaching how to fish.
More than the relief of money, a thing that the west consistently throws at problems and it never fixes anything, maybe the thing these people need is the information needed to redress their grievances. There are enough of them that if they marched into Tahrir Sq. they would be noticed. If they all carried a bag of garbage and left it in Tahrir Sq. daily they would be noticed. That's what brought down Mubarak and that is the thing that will get them real relief.
I know this sounds hard hearted. I do not mean to be callused about this. It is just the way that democracy works when everyone is included. Huey Long said it best. "If you don't vote, you don't count". The poor in Egypt will count when they make themselves visible as voting block.
+3 # Allison 2011-05-24 22:15
"The poor will always be with us" because we "haves" do not do enough to to help the "have nots"!
+2 # Activista 2011-05-24 22:53
" poor in Egypt will count when they make themselves visible .."
so far Egypt is under military rule .. the same generals and secret service as under Mubarak ..
Let's hope that November 2010 election will be clean (without US and our "friend" pressure (CIA, MOSSAD))- and the opposition wins.
+4 # VSweet 2011-05-24 14:07
This is dreadful news to read and see how human beings are scavaging for food in the garbage dumps.

What is this world coming too? Where is America headed politically with providing care for their poor? With all the cuts the Republicans are pushing, will America be the next "garbage people"?
+6 # VSweet 2011-05-24 14:34
+11 # karenvista 2011-05-24 14:49
I'm a 64 year old disabled woman from Texas. I owned my own business for most of my life but had to close it due to international circumstances beyond my control. In the last four years prior to my disability I worked for another corporation.

When I became disabled and unable to perform my job I was laid off. I applied for disability but was denied. It took about 2 1/2 years and a lawyer to finally get it even though Social Security's own doctors said I was disabled.

During the time when I had no income I went through my savings and had to turn to getting food from dumpsters. Then, in my city, the grocery stores started locking dumpsters and having a closed conveyor system so the poor couldn't get to the food.

In addition to Huey Long's quote "If you don't vote, you don't count." remember Stalin's famous "It's not who votes that counts, it's who counts the votes."

I voted then and I vote now but I consider my vote as a mere speed bump to be overcome by the Republicans stealing the elections they want to steal. They didn't want the presidency this time. For obvious reasons. They knew what was going to happen.
+4 # Glen 2011-05-24 16:51
Great comments on the conditions that even Americans can go through, and the Republicans.

You're right. There is an agenda, but it isn't just the republicans that follow it. Democrats do too. Yep, John McCain knew he was not meant to win - Obama was the chosen one.

In the meantime - poverty takes America. Sure, Obama may take the flack, but he is only the representative, not the leader.
+5 # wfalco 2011-05-25 14:37
Even people are disposable in this world of gross consumerism.
I wonder how many out there are of the mentality that the "garbage people" are "getting what they deserve." Some might even muse "how creatively capitalist"-by surviving on waste as a product for sale.

I recall our ex-President, George W., once telling an individual at a town hall meeting "how uniquely American" when the poor sole complained about having to work two jobs to make ends meet.
+2 # DaveM 2011-05-25 23:35
It is somewhat off-topic, but the United States throws away enough valuable/usable material to cover the entire gross national products of the 50 or so lowest GDP nations COMBINED. Of course we have dumpster divers! And more power to them.

If someone were throwing quarters along the road, how many people would be fighting to pick them up? But there's plenty to be found in dumpsters that's worth far more than a quarter (what about, say, the copper wire from a single electric motor?). Even those doing the dumping often know the value of their "trash"--hence the locks on dumpsters and the deliberate destruction of usable items in an epic display of small-mindedness.

I'm not saying we "should" have people in this nation who are so desperate for food that they turn to the nation's discards for sustenance. I am saying that one man's trash truly is another's treasure, and more power to those who know this and aren't afraid to take advantage of the opportunity.
+4 # Glen 2011-05-26 07:19
I understand your thinking, but in the meantime, let's be educating as many as possible in the value of personal recycling, repairing, reusing, and sharing.

Of course, with all the disasters occurring in the U.S. this Spring, sharing and reusing is the most practical and compassionate use of what might possibly be castoffs.
+4 # genierae 2011-05-26 10:58
Take a long, hard look at the above picture. This is what Republicans and their corporate owners have in mind for us.
+1 # Activista 2011-05-27 19:26
Are there a statistics/corr elation between unemployment and suicide?
Would guess that the economic victims (or US healthcare victims) are in thousands.
A record 272,171 homes foreclosed in July 2008 alone.
Over the past year, the number of unemployed people increased by 1.6 million -- bringing the number of total unemployed to 8.8 million.
79 million people are struggling to pay medical debt.
90 average suicides per day. What a SICK society USA/capitalism MONEY. MONEY is.

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