In one of my earlier posts I described a visit to Mokattam with its awesome cave churches. I had always wanted to go back to visit one of the projects there, and when I heard that Nazli Rizek, one of the members at St Andrew’s, was taking a few people, I just had to tag along.

Nazli had taught English at the APE Project in the past, so was an ideal person to show us round. Mokattam’s other name is the ‘Garbage City’, because it is where President Nasser moved the rubbish collectors, the Zabaleen, in the 1950s. The Zabaleen are primarily Christian, and everywhere you see signs of their faith.

Mokattam has grown and is now a densely populated township with almost every available piece of land swallowed up in building constructions. In most of the blocks of flats, the ground floor is used for bringing in bags of rubbish, which the families sort through, extracting anything which is able to be recycled. After this process, the rest of the rubbish is taken away to a land fill site.

APE, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, has operated in Mokattam since 1984 and occupies an area in the centre of the township. It is one of the only spaces where there is a sense of space and even greenery. It aims to encourage the garbage collectors, and especially the women and children, to become ‘agents of change for a better environment’, and seeks to improve their lives in healthcare, education and also through income generation projects (involving recycling). They also seek to protect the environment by improving waste management systems and indeed have started an eco-garden at Mokattam, planting indigenous trees which produce fruit, thus promoting the concept of sustainability.

On entering the APE compound, we immediately came upon the school, which was made up of a number of brightly-decorated classrooms and enthusiastic teachers. There was a Nursery, where parents (many of them working on APE projects) could leave their babies and toddlers in a safe environment. Then there were several classrooms for children between the ages of 4 and 8, I would say, where they are taught basic reading and writing and generally are given a head start before being integrated in to the government school system.

However, the main part of the APE centre comprises of the buildings where recycling takes place, and where, primarily young women, are taught how to weave and sew and how to manufacture the wonderful rugs and patchwork quilts and bags, for which they are renowned.  The rags they use come from industrial waste (and not out of the garbage, as I had naively thought). Once they learn how to weave, they often have looms set up in their homes to continue to earn a living. They also learn how to recycle paper, which is handmade without any glues and chemicals, and so environmentally friendly. The paper is used to make cards with dried flowers or embroidery.

The healthcare service was unfortunately closed the day we were there, but they run awareness programmes in the community, especially concerning issues such as early marriage and female circumcision. There is also a project dealing with the transmission of Hepatitis B and C and providing both testing and treatment if necessary.

APE certainly makes a tremendous contribution to the well-being of the community, and everywhere we went we were met by helpful people who were obviously enjoying what they were doing.

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