Looking to Egypt’s Poor To Inspire Sustainable Community Living

Looking to Egypt’s Poor To Inspire Sustainable Community Living


I recently moved to Cairo in Egypt to accompany my partner as she pursues her studies at the American University here. Cairo is an amazing place filled with all the joy and sadness, love and hate, good and bad, rich and poor that could ever be stuffed into one place. There are also people everywhere! In USA it’s said that you are never more than 20ft from a Rat…. Well in Cairo I would estimate that you are never more than 3ft from another person! It’s so chock full of people here that there are even approximately 5million people living in old abandoned cemeteries.

With this many people all co-habitating in one place, more often than not people are poor. Sure there are many middle and high class here but the poor are the majority.  As a foreigner wandering into a slum you are immediately surrounded by a horde of soccer shirt wearing kids trying to amuse you for small change. You are constantly being asked if you want to go to the pyramids and occasionally you will feel contempt towards your perceived richness. The streets are narrow mud roads with random animals scattered and, as expected, people everywhere.

Generally as a foreigner you don’t stay too long here but if you do and you start to observe life you start to see it really is a living breathing community that breaths it’s own life. People are riding around on bikes delivering bread, tea, gas. Small shops are open on every corner and people sit on the streets selling vegetables. Live is out in the open here for all to see.Cairo as a whole actually seems to operate much like this but the slums concentrate it and make you realise what is going on.

Excluding the rich who can give Western consumers a real run for their money, many of the sub communities seem to rotate a lot of their money via the service industry. While it’s not perfect it’s really been making me think about what makes a society tick and how we can learn from what is happening here to apply to a more sustainable community setting.Generally in Egypt you don’t do too much for yourself. If you have money it’s unlikely you do anything for yourself! But taking the lower class (I hate to say that) the service industry seems to be rotating itself.

Just say you own a small hole in wall Koshari restaurant. Koshari is a popular Egyptian dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, friend onions and spicy tomato sauce, and it’s yummy, oh and extremely cheap, even in Egyptian standards! Every day a boy rides by with a bicycle loaded with gas canisters. If you need gas then you flag him down and he comes in and swaps your canister round for a price. Now that same boy may also stop in for some Koshari.

Obviously this is a simplistic example but what I am saying is that even in the slums people pay for each others services and help to keep the money rotating within their own community. This is consumerism but it’s also an effective way to spread the wealth. Like I said you can and often do get anything delivered straight to your door!

Now if the very poor are managing to do this kind of thing then in our own western countries where the poor at least get some government help this principle really could help to give local communities internal and important jobs that could help people spend their cash internally and not use it for outside pointless consumerism.

As an example I feel it would be much more beneficial to eat out once a week at a locally owned cafe than spend your money on a new t-shirt. This kind of in-spending helps bread community and better perceived wealth for everyone (wealth is a perception anyway, right!). We need to stop oversoncumption. You would be eating anyway day to day, so by paying to eat you are just paying someone a little money but not actually consuming anymore physical matter than you already would have. Also local consumption generally cuts down on things like driving.

The rotating services within communities is not new by any stretch and there may be a way that you can integrate it into your life today and it won’t cost you either. Although less common in USA, many communities operate LETs schemes. LETs stands for Local Exchange Trading Schemes. These schemes basically look to do exactly what I have been talking about, and best of all no money changes hands. The LETs schemes have their own points based currency. Each local system has it’s own ways but the basics are all the same. Just say you grow organic veggies in your garden. You could go to your local LETs and say that you are offering 5lbs of carrots for 10 points. Say you sell 4 and you get 40 points. You may then find someone else in the scheme offering massages for 30points, so you can exchange your points for this service. It’s tax free and extremely effective for building a local sustainable community.

If your local community does not have a LETs then maybe it could be your charge to get people together and get one started?Much of what I talked about today is hypothetical but as you can see from LETs, much of it is available and within people’s reaches. We need to stop over consumption and start helping to hold each other up again. The meaning of community can still exist in this global world, and with the internet at our hands it’s never been easier.
Please let us know you thoughts.

This is a Guest Post from Forest who is the owner and Author of Frugal Zeitgest, a Frugal Living blog.  Forest talks regularly about money savings tips, cutting over consumption and sustainable, simple living.

9 Responses to Looking to Egypt’s Poor To Inspire Sustainable Community Living

  1. Bartering seems to be growing in demand since a lot of folks took hits on their income, but could trade services etc. LETs is an interesting concept – I’m guessing the hit on GDP would not sit well with US leaders!

    • I remember when bartering was really big while living in San Francisco. My aunt does Interior designs there and she use to barter for some really good dinners at very yummy restaurants. Miss those days!

  2. Thanks Sam :).

    I also want to apologise for some grammatical errors in this post. I wrote it a while back and didn’t fully check it before submitting…. Although I ramble a bit I hope you enjoyed the general gist.

    Egypt’s poor really don’t have it great and they don’t get much government support. In fact many don’t have birth certs, SS numbers or anything so they theoretically do not exit! Beside all the hardship they really do have vibrant communities with many inner workings and the supply of services to each other and to the richer members of Cairo are very interesting to me….

  3. @Jason, I love the idea of bartering or exchanging without currency… I guess we all do it to some extent starting from bartering with our siblings to trading things with friends… it’s just about taking it a step further.

    I don’t know how much of the service industry in the poor areas of Egypt works without the exchange of currency but I am sure it happens a lot considering so many people have very little access to much cash.

  4. Forest, have you read the book Shantaram? It’s about an Australian on the run from the law who winds up in India and then in a big slum in Mumbai. Your post reminded me a little of some of the details in the novel.

    Highly recommend it!

  5. Wow! That’s great- I didn’t know you were living in Cairo!

    Thank you for writing that insightful post. “The meaning of community can still exist in the global world” I can’t help but think of Haiti and Chili, when they had that earthquake, the sense of community felt around the world really gave me goosebumps, it was very inspiring…

  6. What a great post. I’ve spent time in cities that are rife with poverty and so I know what you mean.

    Incidentally, a lot of that local economy you see is ‘tax free’ or black market. But I doubt very much that those people care. They live on a bit of cash, plenty of exchanges and the business relationships they create are of high importance.

    I try to buy locally as well and, here in France, there are several villages and towns with a local exchange system too. If I ever start a small business here, I think I’ll try to remember the cultural importance of local business–it’s taken seriously around here.

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