Rubbish is ABC in shanty town;Briefing;International

9th April 1999 at 01:00

F or years in Cairo, just before dawn, an army of ragged children set out with their fathers to collect the rubbish thrown out by one of the world's largest cities, bringing it home for reuse and resale.

The 50,000 zabaleen (rubbish collectors) living on the edge of the Egyptian capital are mainly Coptic Christians who migrated from rural areas to escape poverty, only to find themselves trapped by urban squalor. Traditionally, they have eked out a living amidst livestock and rotting rubbish in disease-ridden shanty towns, with no hope of an education.

Today, half the children living in Mokattam, the largest squatter settlement, go to school, and the community is the centre of a recycling industry which has gained international recognition for environmental and educational improvements - particularly for teenage girls.

Reem, 15, has just finished weaving a brightly-coloured rug out of recycled rags. Before embarking on the "learn and earn" programme she, like many other zabaleen girls, had never been to school and could not write her own name. Now she can.

Educationist Dr Laila Iskandar developed the "learn and earn" approach. She says: "We start with existing knowledge and skills about rubbish and recycling and integrate other essentials in the context of people's lives and livelihoods. At the same time we're trying to educate wealthier householders about their waste and the people who live off it."

Reem is one of 500 teenage girls to enrol on the programme run by a community-based organisation set up by the zabaleen, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, which is now helping to train people to run similar programmes in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

The six-month interdisciplinary curriculum covers a wide range of subjects from basic literacy and numeracy, to business skills and environmental hygiene. Most of the learning takes place at the loom.

By the end of the course, young zabaleen women have gained the skills and experience needed to earn a decent income and to begin to buy their own loom on credit. Reem says: "This is my school. Now I can be proud of where I live and what my family does. People buy our rugs, and visit us to see our work and its success."

Next door to the rag-recycling project is the paper recycling unit, entirely staffed by teenage girls who are also learning essential work and life skills on the job. There is a patchwork-quilt project for older women, a children's education club which offers supplementary classes for school drop-outs, and a nursery.

Although today there are two proper schools in Mokattam, most of those who still miss out on formal education are girls, many of whom still spend their days sorting vegetable peel from plastic, tins and other detritus. Tuition fees, the cost of losing their labour and a traditional society that prioritises boys, all mean that without the non-formal school, many more young women would lose out on education altogether.

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