Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | April 9, 2014

Consider The Ants

Helwan, Egypt

I’m convinced that if God decided to transform all of the human race into bugs and insects, the Zabbaleen would definitely be the ants among us. Observing the Zabbaleen at work is like watching a colony of ants. They are a people in constant motion — transporting Cairo’s garbage to their homes, sorting through it, bagging up recyclable items, loading their bulging bags onto trucks and carts, and finally transporting their goods to market. This is the cycle of life for the Zabbaleen. They cannot afford to be idle or they will not survive.

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The Zabbaleen are masters of hard work and efficiency. They have developed their own systems for turning trash into a meager treasure that gives them enough to survive from day-to-day. Once the trash comes in they must immediately off-load it, begin the picking process, and then systematically get everything to the right pile for processing. Organic waste is fed to animals. The rest is sorted according to categories like paper products, metals, cans, plastics, rubber items (including the soles of shoes), and more. Certain families specialize in certain items and have their methods for bagging and transporting the items they sell to recyclers.

Loading Crew
Because Cairo’s flow of garbage is incessant, the Zabbaleen cannot afford to waste any time. As quickly as they summit today’s mountains of filth, they must do it all again the following day. They must deal with everything they bring in because there is no garbage pick up for any remaining items. Somehow they manage to take almost every item of garbage and make money, even if only a few Egyptian pounds. Observing these industrious people at work is nothing short of inspiring. Their example certainly leaves us without excuse for complaining about how hard we may have to work.

Atop The Trash
When the writer of Proverbs recorded his wisdom about hard work, he used the ants as an example. “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8). And again, “the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer” ((Prov. 30:25). And so it is with the Zabbaleen. They have learned to work cooperatively and consistently in order to provide food for their families. They do not know the luxury of a day off or a vacation.

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In addition to being an industrious people, the Zabbaleen are also a people of faith. An estimated ninety-percent are Coptic Christians. This morning we took a quick detour through Cairo’s Mokattam district, home to several thousand Zabbaleen. There, they have transformed the caves in the Mokattam mountain into churches, the largest of which is the Cave Church of Saint Simon the Tanner. The church can seat 20,000 people. There are no words to describe the rugged beauty of this church and the other smaller churches nestled in the caves. This religious complex carved into the mountain is a metaphor for the existence that the Zabbaleen have carved out of Cairo’s mountains of garbage.

Come Lord Jesus
We can certainly learn a lot by considering the industrious Zabbaleen, a people whose work ethic is akin to that of the ants. Although life is extremely hard for them, they have managed to survive from day-to-day and to hold on to their faith in a God who loves them. Like Lazarus who longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:19-31), the Zabbaleen survive on the crumbs swept aside by those more fortunate than them. I am thankful that we are here to serve the Zabbaleen and their children in the name of Jesus — the One who loves us and who loves the Zabbaleen.

Construction Worker


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