It is not a flock many would care to tend. The 40,000 rag-clad families of the Zabaline, as Cairo’s garbage collectors are called, gather refuse in donkey carts, pick through it for glass, paper, plastic, tin and bones to sell, and sometimes even sleep on it. They have neither plumbing nor electricity and live in huts surrounded by the litter. Rats, ticks and fleas infest their dump, and 40 percent of their children die of dysentery, tetanus, dehydration or measles before their first birthday. Eleven years ago Sister Marie Emmanuelle, a 63-year-old Belgian nun, asked her superiors in Rome for permission to live out her life among these outcasts. “If you please, I am a little old,” she recalls telling them. “All my life I want to share with the poor.”
Sister Emmanuelle got her wish and an earth-and-metal hut, and the Zabaline got a feisty savior. “In the beginning I had five pounds [about $6] a month and it was impossible to do anything,” she says. “So I went to Washington, to Canada, to London, to Paris, to Belgium. I don’t want charity. I want justice. You can’t have a luxurious life when all over the world children are dying. In Geneva one time I tell them, ‘If you will not give me the money, I will make a holdup!’ ”
It wasn’t necessary. Using only spiritual force, she raised $1 million, and today the Zabaline in Azbah el Nakhl (Village of the Palms) have a six-building Salam (Peace) center with a kindergarten for 200, a dispensary and dentistry clinic, a vocational center (sewing, plumbing, carpentry, electricity) and two soccer fields. “Every brick,” she says, “is a gift.” And so, her first mission accomplished, Sister Emmanuelle, now 74, started all over last September in another of Cairo’s 11 garbage cities, a waterless place of endless dust and tin can hills that is even more desolate. “The Egyptian Coptic sisters can run that now,” she explains of Azbah el Nakhl. “Here there was no one to help.”
Sister Emmanuelle was born to a lingerie exporter in Brussels, studied literature at the Sorbonne, joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion and in 1931 was sent to the Grand College of Istanbul. Except for four years in Tunis, she taught there for the next 32 years, moving to a high school in Alexandria in 1963. Then, after the Vatican Council gave nuns a wider latitude in their work, she decided to become a missionary. “I wanted to go to a place no one else wanted,” she says.
She always starts with the children, instructing them in the three R’s. She doesn’t teach religion to small children because “we have Muslim and Christian and we don’t want to separate them,” but she does teach birth control to their parents. “I wrote the Pope I am obliged to do it for human dignity,” she says. “He could not answer me.”
She rises at 4:30 a.m. for daily Mass, making her way by flashlight (which also serves to scare off the wild dogs) through the dump to the paved road, where she catches an overcrowded bus to a church 10 miles away. “I see the old people die on the ground without medicine or a doctor,” she laments. “I must do something.” But her hope is the children. “I have to help them, so someday they can have a little house out of the slum, with a son who is a carpenter or plumber. I am not Mother Teresa. She is very strong; I am not so strong. But I can still work for God and people. These,” she concludes, thankfully, “are the most beautiful years of my life.”