Across the slum skyline, distracting even from the Great Pyramid of Giza, beyond the City of the Dead, with the great River Nile in the distance, is a herd of goats on the third floor of a five-storey block in Cairo.
Flocks of sheep occupy rooftops and chickens can be heard but not seen, amplified by threat of a lone hawk soaring over the Coptic Christian enclave and its residents. Occasional sharp shards of sunlight catch the eye, giving a clue to an inspiring and extraordinary way of life in one of the most impoverished ghettos in this city. Another clue are the heaps of rubbish in the living rooms, corridors, stairs – indeed, everywhere I look – but this is not a testimony to their poverty but to their ingenuity, because this is a city slum that could easily claim the title of Recycling Capital of the World.
This area is home to 6,500 families who are collectively knows as the Zabaleen, Cairo's garbage collectors. In the shadow of the Coptic Christian church cut into the sandy rock face, lies Moqattam – or "Garbage City" as it's known – which houses an entire community dedicated to recycling 4,500 tonnes of rubbish every day from Cairo. Straight from the streets of Egypt's biggest city, the rubbish is collected and delivered in trucks every day before it is apportioned to the area's families for separation. Some families have specialities such as leather, electrics, tin cans or plastic bags. From food to furniture everything is recycled. And recycling here is a game the whole family can and do play – fathers, mothers, children, grandparents, all join in to harness someone else's waste into a resource which can keep them clothed and fed. Certain shampoo bottles carry premium value because their manufacturers pay a little for every container to prevent them being refilled and sold as counterfeits. The Head & Shoulders and Pantene brand names are among the first words people learn in literacy classes here. This entrepreneurial environmentalism, born originally out of survival, is fast emerging into a philosophy and is now part of education programmes being run here. The Zabaleen recycle up to 85 per cent of the city's waste and deliver it to manufacturers and industrialists around Cairo and they believe that they can improve upon that already-impressive amount.
Catching a glimpse inside doorways, huge mounds of papers, textiles, metals, even light bulbs are slowly and methodically processed surgically, compressed, washed, and then packed into huge grey hessian bags to be resold or simply reused. Donkey carts trundle along on the potholed streets over-laden with the reworked detritus on the way to a new home.
Gazing on this in wonder I find my vast reservoir of war-weary cynicism melting away as the poorest of the poor find a way of eking out a living out of the worst of circumstances with the best and most remarkable of consequences. Never shall I grumble about my London council and its domestic recycling demands.
But this isn't where it stops – the sunlit flashes across the skyline are solar panels and part of a growing initiative to supply the district with hot water.
While the Zabaleen have been collecting refuse for generations, the appearance of solar panels is something new, as are the biofuel barrels also sitting on concrete rooftops (along with the sheep and goats) packed with the organic remnants of domestic waste providing gas for the residents here making it truly a no-waste zone.
This recent development is part of the Solar CITIES project, which has been working with residents here to build biogas generators and solar water heaters since 2005. It is based on a community participation and education programme, which aims to capture the local know-how and skills and use using local materials to develop and improve the quality of life there. The German-based NGO, officially called Solar C3 CITIES (Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions), is making startling progress here and was founded by an American called TH Culhane, an urban planner with a utopian vision for urban ecology and home-scale energy provision. While the focus has been on energy requirements in developing countries, its social impact cannot be ignored. I have a cup of tea brewed from the biogas fuel in the house of Hanna Fathy, a Solar CITIES coordinator and tour guide.
The alleyway to his house is stacked full of processed debris and as the door opens, three generations of his family are separating plastics and leather on the ground floor. On the top rests a solar panel and biogas barrels. The water runs hot through my hands from the solar heater, proving that these aren't notional concepts, they work and make a difference to people's lives. A cup of tea in the company of Hanna, his wife and his new child has never tasted sweeter – the fruits of ingenuity and nature. Hanna brought me through the area and introduced me to the collectors and gave me a potted history of the community and the work being done by Solar CITIES. The marriage of this community and this charity is a perfect synthesis of experience, culture and technical innovation.
Everywhere I turn, my eyes feast on the marvellous work being done here and how this whole community is being educated in the technology of ecologically friendly domestic energy. This is one wonder of the modern world that any visitor to the city should cherish. And it is an experience that not only will stay with me but also one that has changed me – and profoundly so. It has taught me that one community, one person can make a difference and that difference can multiply and grow into a movement that can change the world. It takes one seed and I never expected to find that inspiration in a garbage city.
Glass is collected and sold to factories; copper and other metals are melted and sold to dealers; the plastics sold and reused in the manufacture of cheap toys; and the textiles shredded into mattress fillings.
It is model of enterprise and an example of how to harvest waste into much-needed jobs across the developing world. Primitive, practical and oh so efficient. Yes – it's a lesson to all of us, one that I have taken to heart – but most of all its an tribute to the Zabaleen, and a signal that hope springs eternal even from the unlikely of circumstances.
For more information on the Solar CITIES Tour visit Solarcities.blogspot.com
To book, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Donal MacIntyre stayed at the Four Seasons Cairo. Rates start from £330, per room per night, on a bed and breakfast basis. 00800 6488 6488 Fourseasons.com/cairofr/. British Midland International (BMI) flies daily to Cairo. Flights direct from London Heathrow and fares start from £279 return. Flybmi.com