It is one thing to read—or even write—about an issue as an outsider, and quite another thing to tackle it from inside, reaching out to the people concerned and sensing their suffering first hand. As the entire world attempts to abate the spread of ‘swine flu’, the World Health Organisation decided to term the virus Influenza A (H1N1) to remove any misconception of the pigs spreading the virus. Yet pig farmers in Egypt are being forced to see their stock and main source of income confiscated and executed before their very eyes, under threat of being detained for trouble making if they dare object.
Sectarian at heart
Watani decided to visit the Ezbet al-Nakhl and al-Khosous areas, home to more than 550 pens that include some 85,000 pigs. Since the 1960s the residents, today 45,000-strong, have made a livelihood of collecting garbage from Cairo, sorting it and recycling whatever may be recycled, and raising pigs that feed on the organic waste. It is a business in which the entire family takes part, the men, women and children work hand-in-hand.
People in Ezbet al-Nakhl and al-Khosous have lost all confidence in the media; they allege that exaggerated and fabricated news stories have worked to ruin their lives. Watani had therefore to seek the help of one of the most trusted and respected men in the neighbourhood, Sobhy Abdel-Messih Gayed of the Horus’ Sons for Environmental Preservation Association, the NGO most active in the district. Mr Gayed introduced Watani to the locals who promptly agreed to talk to the paper, even though they insisted on anonymity.
There was a consensus among the residents that the decision to cull the pigs was sectarian at heart. Islam sees pigs as unclean animals, so Islamists and the State have decided to rid the country from the pigs, they maintain, disregarding the fact that pigs are reared and consumed by Copts.
The question that really begs an answer is how will we get rid of all that garbage after culling the pigs, considering that each pig consumes some 20kg of garbage a day?
Curiously, however, most of the residents did not appear to mind the pig culling if they were given compensation by the State as promised. The problem was that no-one believed at any point that the government would stand by its promise. Rashad, a young man from among the residents, told Watani that the figures cited as compensation do not agree; figures range from EGP1,000 per head to EGP30. “Which figure would you believe?” he says. Not surprisingly, he believes none of them. The pigs would be culled, he said, livelihoods would be cut, and there would be no compensation. Watani had talked to Rashad one day before the culling began in earnest; it is heartbreaking that his predictions all came true.
The pig raisers in Ezbet al-Nakhl and al-Khosous all agreed that a fixed payment of EGP300 per head would have been acceptable if it was to be paid on the spot. And even though raising pigs was extremely profitable for them since the pigs fed on the garbage and a sow produced five to twelve piglets three times a year, they would have welcomed trading their pigs for the more-expensive-to-rear livestock; but this was not an option.
“We were not even given any time to re-plan our lives or think of any alternative livelihood,” Umm-Mina, a woman in her forties, told Watani. “Since it is now obvious the pigs have nothing to do with the virus, the government could have easily afforded to give us a grace period of four months, say, before culling the pigs.” She cited a dire warning of the repercussions of the expected unemployment and loss of income in the neighbourhood.
Umm al-Shahat, an elderly woman who lives in the area, thinks the decision to cull the pigs and then move the garbage dumps only benefits investors who would quickly move in to erect towering buildings.
On the other hand some young mothers deplored the lacking awareness of the virus. “The government is so busy cutting our livelihood it is not spreading awareness that the virus is not spread through the pigs; or maybe if it does that it won’t have a prerogative to cull the pigs. Our children are being banned from mingling with the other children at school for fear of spreading infection,” they complain. “And we have seen not one health official to check anything here if we are indeed a health hazard.”
The pig culling issue has placed added social pressure on the mostly Coptic garbage collectors who feel they are being ostracised. Khalaf told Watani that, when he went to collect his monthly fee for collecting the garbage from houses, one man shouted at him, pushed him away using a broomstick and threw his fee at his face because he feared Khalaf carried the virus. Another garbage collector who dropped by a sidewalk café for a cup of tea was rudely asked to leave and take away his viruses. In school, the children of the garbage collectors are shunned.
A young garbage collector, Nimr, feels that officials treat garbage collectors and pig owners as a minority and not as a part and parcel of the community. He thinks the flu virus was just an allegation to rid the district of the garbage collectors. “Yet the problem is not the pigs but those who may come to Egypt from an infected area and bring in the virus.”
Move them out
On his part Mr Gayed denounces the decision to cull all the pigs in Egypt, describing it as absolute disregard of animal rights. “Culling the pigs will not shield Egypt from the virus,” he says. “If the Health Ministry is so diligent in its care for the residents’ health, why has it been so lax about vaccinating the residents against Hepatitis B which is so widespread here, a move for which we have been diligently calling for.”
Mr Gayed comments that other countries in the world where influenza A (H1N1) was discovered did not opt for such drastic solutions, they only culled infected pigs and they rear pigs out of residential areas. In Egypt, he says, a decree was issued last year to move the pig farms out of Cairo but was stalled because MP Mustafa Bakry, into whose constituency the pigs were to be moved, rejected the proposal on religious and sectarian grounds.
Manshiyet Nasser residents faced a similar predicament. A few years ago, as the urban sprawl of Cairo threatened to overtake the garbage collector area of Manshiyet Nasser, the government decided to move the garbage collectors further away from the urban district and asked them to move to Qatamiya. The Copts complied and started to build houses and workshops there, upon which it was suddenly discovered that the new area lay within the precinct of a national park. They were thrown out, their buildings pulled down, and they were never compensated.