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Cairo's 14 million people produce an estimated 7,000 tons of garbage daily,but municipal and private haulers collect less than 50 percent of the city'srefuse.

During the past 35 years, thousands of Christians, fleeing poverty in ruralUpper Egypt, have congregated into villages within Cairo's garbage dumps,collecting trash and recycling metal, plastic, paper, and bones. Althoughthe villages are disease-prone and poverty-stricken, a spirited Christiancommunity has emerged as believers have developed schools, health clinics,and churches.

One of the largest of these seven villages is behind Muqattam mountain atthe southeast edge of Cairo. The village of 30,000 is about 90 percent Christian,nearly 10 times the rate for the nation.

Beginning daily at 4 a.m., a cacophony of squeaky wheels and rattling cartshauled by donkeys edge their way down the mountain. Usually a father accompaniedby his preteenage son, both dressed in filthy rags, start rounding up rubbish.

Around 11 a.m., the same donkey carts, laden with trash, ascend the mountain.On arrival, women and children start rummaging through the rubbish. Everythingis recycled. Garbage must be sifted manually. Dirty, sharp objects causeserious infections.

In the 1970s, the government ordered the garbage collectors and their trashremoved from a lush, green area of Imbaba near Cairo's center to Muqattam'srocky desert. Many perished in the new area.

But this misfortune has turned into a blessing. Farahat, a young Coptic Orthodoxbeliever, was moved by all the misery he saw when he visited. People livedon garbage heaps. Basic hygiene did not exist. And although the garbagecollectors were Christian, they had no understanding of their faith. Drugand alcohol abuse were commonplace.

Eventually, ...

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In the Magazine

August 11, 1997

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