Manshiet Nasser: The Secret Shame of Cairo’s Mega Slum

Egypt is considered a forward-looking modern country in the Middle East and has much going for it. Cairo, its capital, has some of the finest hospitals and high end shops, as well as restaurants and all the trappings of modern life. There is however, a secret shame, one not talked about much, never shown to tourists, and certainly not discussed officially. It is called Rubbish City or Manshiet Nasser, a mega slum of 600,000 to 1 million people.

Cairo is a city of 16-20 million people. A survey of Greater Cairo estimated the average income at the equivalent of 200 US dollars a month but found that 68% of those canvassed made less than 143 dollars. What’s more, the extremely poor make less than 20 dollars a month. In Manshiet Nasser there are gradations of poverty, with perhaps 50 dollars being the average per month and many wage rates much lower. Manshiet Nasser became known as Garbage City in Cairo because the Coptic Christians – the Zabbaleen in the Mokattam area – pick up the majority of garbage in Cairo and bring it back to sort, finding pieces they can resell. Little children, shoeless, pick through the garbage all day, as do their mothers. These people are comparatively lucky, as they are able to make some sort of subsistence living – paltry though it may be – and thus survive in their poverty-stricken conditions with meager amounts of food.

Driving into "Garbage City"Photo: Kyle KingmanThe garbage being brought in through a river of raw sewage

Ezbet Bekhit is another typical neighborhood in Manshiet Nasser. There, the median income is 50 dollars and the average gross floor space per person is 6.2 square meters. Not very much if you are lucky enough to have a cook stove or a bed, although few do. There is little light or electricity and even less drinkable water. Furthermore, the attitude to the slums by officials is summed up by a response to some in a better area complaining about no drinking water:

“Hussein Fadl, vice chairman of the municipal water department in Cairo’s Giza district, says such an expansion is planned, but delivery of the treated water will remain a problem. As a stopgap measure for Saft al-Laban, the neighborhood will be temporarily connected to adjacent districts by sets of new pipes by November.”

“You won’t hear them crying after that,” said Fadl. “These neighborhoods grew up by themselves, like cancer cells, and we are trying to keep up.”

The words “cancer” and “crying” are used as if the people in the neighborhoods do not have a right to a place to live and potable water. With that attitude from officials, it will be a long time before most of Manshiet Nasser sees any relief.

The above conditions are harsh enough for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to be living in but there is another reason this author called Manshiet Nasser a secret shame. There is an area of it darker and more poverty-stricken than any other, an area shunned by the government and the people. This area is Aribar we Noz, which means “4 1/2”, a reference to the size of this inner slum of slums within Manshiet Nasser. It is where the Sudanese refugees escaping genocide in Darfur end up. The Sudanese are despised by many Egyptians as they are not Muslim. The government can’t stop them coming in but they do stop any services reaching them, essentially trapping them in a four and a half square kilometer space, left to starve or scrape by if luck is on their side. Kyle Kingman, an Ocean Geophysicist who was an invaluable source for this article, found a man with a car to drive him around on his last day in Cairo. He wanted to return to the slum. They had explored Maqqatam, the garbage center of in the heart of Manshiet Nasser, when he asked if these were the “poorest of the poor”.

Carlos answered: “The Zabaleen are very poor. Many here are in poverty but they are able to at least maintain their poverty with their jobs. The poorest of the poor are the Sudanese refugees. Most of them have nothing. Actually, I have a friend who works with them.”

It was only by luck that they got through the checkpoints (yes, there are checkpoints in and out of Aribar we Noz). Ramadan had just started and minds were elsewhere. They met the woman above, whose husband had been killed in Darfur. The couple had fled with their two children but she now sits pregnant by the window, a picture of lost hope. The living quarters for these families were generally a small cell-like room, to shelter people with 2-6 children in each. There were no beds, just some material to curl up on the floor with. There are some groups working secretly to help the Sudanese learn some skills, give them a little meager food and otherwise stave off death by starvation, but it is difficult when the government wants them forgotten. If anyone does want to help, contact the writer in my first source and they can point you in the right direction.

There was one thing this author learned in her travels to Haiti, and to Lagos, Nigeria and Kenya. There are few tears in the slums, except when a child or loved one dies. The people don’t have time for tears; they need all their energy to scrape a living day by day. There is, though, resilience and hope. People can’t survive without hope and that is what strikes me every time. The smile on some child’s face, the ‘thank you’ from a mother for such a small thing as a bottle of water. Their faith in God – be it Allah, Buddha, God or another – that life will get better and he will help them is the base of their survival. Rock hard faith keeps them going.

Amnesty International put out a report after the devastating 2008 rock fall that crushed homes in Manshiet Nasser and killed many. In part of the report, Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director, says:

“Thousands of Egypt’s poor are trapped by poverty and neglect that could ultimately end in their deaths. The government must urgently address the risks faced by those living in areas designated as ‘unsafe’ and find solutions by consulting with those directly affected.”

These people in Cairo are not alone. There are huge slums in Mumbai, in Vietnam, in Lagos, in Nairobi and in many other areas of the world. What is unique here, however, is the lack of aid organizations helping to provide skills, water, food and sometimes jobs. Instead it is hidden, the crazy aunt walled up in the attic, not to be discussed in polite company. Egypt and the world must start discussing Manshiet Nasser and how to help the denizens within. It is our humanity we forgo if we keep silent.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4