Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a relief, development and peace agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches, with programs in more than 50 countries. MCC Egypt works with a number of Egyptian groups to export handicrafts for Ten Thousand Villages.
MCC Egypt assists with contacts and logistics with Egyptian producer groups. Ten Thousand Villages has purchased products with MCC Egypt assistance since 1993.
Founded in 1984, APE started as an initiative to provide alternative employment for people involved in Cairo’s informal garbage collection industry. In seven neighborhoods of the Moqattam section of Cairo, an estimated 83,000 garbage collectors work together to collect refuse from all parts of the city. They bring the garbage to their homes, separate it into different product categories and then sell it to brokers. The garbage is carefully sorted on the flat roofs of their homes to keep it off of the streets and out of their living quarters. The work is hard, exposes the workers to health hazards, and is not considered a respectable way to life. Child mortality is high; in contrast to a U.S. rate of 7 per 1,000, and an Egyptian rate of 33 per 1,000, the rate of child mortality in the garbage collectors’ community is 117 per 1,000.
APE works within this community, providing training for young women to make a living through craft production. APE artisans create products from fabric remnants sourced from local textile mills, using hand looms to create a range of bags, rugs and the colorful, folk-art hassock introduced in June by Ten Thousand Villages. The group provides work for some 250 young women. Artisans receive three months training with pay, as well as health care and a daycare for their children. Some receive a loom that allows them to work from home.
While Moqattam residents deal with a large quantity of garbage, it is well organized in bags and kept on their roofs, off of the streets. Directly adjacent to Moqattam, residents have built a church high on the side of a mountain overlooking their neighborhood. “Providing the labor, carving talent and vision for the church, they have created a beautiful complex that stands in stark contrast to their daily lives,” observed Joyce Burkholder, purchasing director, who visited the group in 2008.
Swine Flu Fears Raise Sectarian Tensions
Moqattam and other garbage collector communities in Cairo have large Christian minorities, although about 90% of the country as a whole is Muslim. Marginalized farmers in Upper Egypt, where there are large Christian communities, began moving to the city in the 1950s, where some could find no other work than collecting garbage. The garbage also provided food for the goats and pigs they raised. Muslims do not eat pork, but Christians do, and selling the pork to the larger Christian community became an important source of income along with collecting garbage.
Over the years, tensions have risen in rural and urban areas between Christians and Muslims over the presence of pigs; not only do Muslims shun pork, they see the animals as unclean, and feel they should not be allowed in what they view an Islamic country.
The recent spread of the H1N1 flu virus, also known as swine flu, has raised these existing tensions in Egypt. While declared unnecessary by the World Health Organization, the Egyptian government carried out a campaign to cull the pig population, some 300,000 animals, in the country. This has had a devastating impact on the garbage collector communities, where some 30 to 50 percent of people depend on the animals for much of their livelihood—through the sale and consumption of the meat, as well as on the pigs’ function in eating much of the food waste that they process. Moqattam residents need to pay for disposal of such “non-recyclables,” and thus this amount is now increased.
Many are also very upset about the method of killing the pigs. Rather than using humane methods, those responsible reportedly clubbed, stabbed and beat the animals, then bulldozed large numbers into the desert outside the city. Compensation is set at only 25 percent of the market value of the pigs.
Ten Thousand Villages’ orders with APE are now more critical than ever, and the artisans express their gratitude for the ongoing support and purchase of their products.
From reports by Doug Lapp, Ten Thousand Villages buyer, and Linda Herr, Mennonite Central Committee Egypt country co-representative.