Dreams out of debris

Yousriya Loza Sawaris, Secretary-General for the Sawiris Foundation, Founding President of the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE)

I have a phrase for business people: “One man’s garbage is another man’s capital.” So it is not garbage to the garbage collector. From that starting point I have worked for 30 years at this.

How did I start? I am an accountant. I was married young, so I went to college after my third son started school. I became a financial advisor; I worked for the Ford Foundation for ten years before opening my own private business.

One day, a young man sitting at a dinner table got into conversation with me. I said, “After all this studying, accounting and thinking financially all boil down to three things: common sense, art, and a liking for numbers.” The young man said, “Can you teach a garbage collector to be an accountant?” And I said, “If he has the common sense and the art, let me try.”

He took me to the garbage area of Cairo in his jeep, to where all the tins and cardboard were piled up. Before he could help me out of the jeep, I jumped out myself and straight into the garbage. It came up to my waist.
I remember the look on the young man’s face. He helped me out of the garbage and I noticed a boy sitting nearby. He looked very nervous because he must have thought that I was somebody in authority who was going to take away his job of receiving the garbage. I started to talk to him and asked if he could write down some numbers on a piece of paper, then some more underneath, which he did, and then could he add them up? He did. Today, that man is assistant head of one of the municipalities there. He always tells me that he was one of my students.

When I fell into the garbage, something told me that if people are living like this, so that my home can be clean, then something has to be done. We did not stop at teaching that one young man.

The situation there was ghastly. Tin, cardboard, children and pigs were all in the same place. Today it is very different, which is thanks to many people and not just me.

I proposed that we set up an Association for the Protection of the Environment. But first I needed to help the girls who sit there and separate the garbage when it arrives. We gave them gloves. However, they did not always use them, as they said they found it easier to work without them, and would only put them on when they saw me arriving.

One day I sat with a family while they were working and the mother found a half-rotten orange. She cut away the bad part and gave the rest to her little boy, after wiping it with her hand. I thought that she must have had penicillin on her hand, because these people never seemed to get sick. However, if they had a cut, tetanus came in.

Thanks to the government and Mrs Mubarrak, 17,000 people were given vaccinations against tetanus. At one time, eight out of ten children might die from tetanus, but now there is no sign of it.

Another thing we did for the young girls: I started a weaving project, and we make rag rugs and patchwork. They also get literacy classes and we got them into school. They are also getting to be computer wizards – girls who are separating garbage in the morning take a bath, then a literacy class, and then work on computers.

We transformed that area so that the people now live in proper homes, and now the children are not running around with the pigs.

Fifteen years later, an ambassador’s wife from the European Union asked me to go and look at another area of the city, as there were nine areas of garbage collection throughout Cairo. I went to the poorest of these areas, and I had the same baptism of realization that I had had before. It was terrible. I stood there and looked, and had the same feeling that something had to be done.

I worked there for 15 years, and today the people are living in high-rises. Now we have a factory that makes simple machines that can recycle everything in garbage, from compost, to glass, to the rejects of the rejects. Even from what is left over at the end of all the processes we can mix it with the sand of Egypt and make tires. That is how we arrive at zero waste.