Picking Trash in Cairo

Africa, my Africa of my dream
Here is where I want to be
Here, I have always been
At my end, here is where I will sleep
Twenty years is a long time to be
Away from home
But I am still here, my one home
My Africa, my Africa of my dream
Many are leaving, leaving for America
As for me, here is where I want to be
My Africa is my America

-Efe Benjamin

Question: What are things that have never been thought about Manshiyat naser?

Manshiyat naser, or “Garbage City” as it’s better known as, is a slum settlement located to the southeast of Cairo. Its inhabitants are affectionately known as “Garbage People”, not because of their awesome Ed Hardy swag, but because they have been sustaining themselves for decades as Cairo’s unofficial sanitation crew.

Why you keep asking me if I'm from Cairo, bro?

The Garbage People, comprising mostly Coptic Christians, first immigrated to Cairo in the 1930s in search of big city dreams and land under their feet. Being very poor, and without a solid 401k plan, they got by whatever way they could: living in makeshift housing and recycling the city’s compostable waste products by feeding it to their pigs.

One man's trash is another man's city

Today, Cairo’s Garbage People make ends meet by going door to door to pick up people’s trash for a nominal fee, which is then brought back to their Garbage City neighborhoods. There, they sort and recycle everything they could, using it for their own manufacturing.

The Zabbaleen use trucks to get the trash to Garbage City, and further direct their loot via a network of donkey-powered carts that carry heaps of trash back to their exact destination.


Once the garbage arrives at its final destination—a Zabbaleen house or apartment— families sort out the trash according to their specialization. Some sort plastic bottles, others cans, and so on. They recycle this garbage to make anything from bags and stationery to plastic hangers and toys.

Many sources agree that the Zabbaleen have created one of the most efficient recycling systems in the world, which recycles up to 80 percent of all the waste that they collect.

According to the most widely used source of C+ students, Wikipedia,

What is distinctive about the Zabbaleen is that the Zabbaleen invest heavily in their tools and know-how for recycling. These Zabbaleen micro-entrepreneurs have invested “an estimated 2.1 million Egyptian pounds in trucks, plastic granulators, paper compactors, cloth grinders, aluminium smelters, and tin processors. Thanks to the Zabbaleen, the city of Cairo has been able to manage its solid waste at almost no cost to the municipal administration.

But, despite their key role in Cairo’s society, the Zabbaleen are amongst the poorest and most prosecuted people in Egypt. Cairo’s municipal government has been trying to get rid of the Zabbaleen in an attempt to be “cool like other cities” that have large corporations with logos to collect their trash. And, like some of the neighborhoods in our article on dilapidated areas around the world, Garbage City “lacks infrastructure and often has no running water, sewage, or electricity.”

...but the schools are fantastic.

But what Garbage City lacks in basic utilities it makes up for in cave-churchiness. There are seven cave churches carved into the nearby Moqattam Mountain. The Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner is the largest and has an amphitheater with a seating capacity of 20,000. Worth a visit.

Another unusual habitat to discover in Cairo is the City of the Dead. Located on the opposite side of the Moqattam Mountain, the City of the Dead is a four-mile long neighborhood of mausoleums and tombs dating back to 642 AD. Like Manshiyat naser, the City of the Dead is a poor neighborhood, but instead of garbage it has dead people. The City of the Dead was built as a cemetery, but the rise of poverty in Egypt has forced many people to resort to living in family mausoleums for their survival. Millions of people live amongst Cairo’s dead with no water or electricity, and heightened risk of a zombie uprising.

zombies not shown
Best Time To Go

The best time to visit is between November and March—y’know…because it’s hot in the summer.

Bragging Rights:

The Great Condescender– When people ask you about visiting the Great Pyramid or the Sphinx—and they will ask you about the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx—you’ll be able to say deadpanned “yes, I did briefly visit those obvious things, but to me Africa is more than just an ancient history museum, it is a living, breathing oasis of culture and passion.

Bonus points if you refer to Africa as “she” when talking about her in third person singular form.


As many families in Garbage City earn less than two dollars a day, be prepared to be called Mr. Fancy Pants if you request water on a daily basis

Insider Tips:
  • Check out Adrenalin Paintball while in Cairo for some completely unrelated paintball fun.
  • If you want to see an Egyptian market that is off the beaten path, check out the Friday Market, which runs from the Citadel to the City of the Dead. Supposedly, you can find anything there.
  • Historically, Cairo has been considered a relatively safe place for overseas adventure travel, even in the poorer neighborhoods. However, volatility in the region has increased since the dawn of the Arab Spring. Do a little research ahead of time to make sure you feel comfortable with visiting Cairo.
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