The Zabbaleen are descendents of subsistence farmers who started migrating from Upper Egypt to Cairo in the 1940s. Fleeing poor harvests and poverty they came to the city and set-up makeshift settlements around the city. They stuck to their tradition of raising pigs, goats, chickens and other animals, while seeking other work.
Eventually, the Zabbaleen mixed with the Wahi, people of the oases of the western desert. The Wahi had come to Cairo early in the twentieth century and had found a niche for themselves organizing the collection of household waste around the city. The Zabbaleen negotiated with the Wahi, and soon began the actual collection and sorting of waste with the Wahi acting as a middleman between the Zabbaleen and residents.
Through this arrangement, the Zabbaleen were able to make a living by sorting through household garbage and salvaging and selling things of value, while the organic waste provided an excellent source of food for their animals. In fact, this arrangement worked so well, that successive waves of migrants came from Upper Egypt to live and work in the newly founded garbage villages of Cairo.
A typical day for a Zabbal, begins before dawn when he leaves his house and starts out on his collection route. In the past, this was done by donkey carts, but in the 1980s the government insisted that the Zabbaleen upgrade to trucks. The Zabbal collects waste from each apartment on his route and then takes it home, where it is sorted into different types (plastic, glass, metal, etc.) and then sold to other families or companies that recycle it. The sorting work was traditionally done in the home by women and girls, resulting in high rates of diseases such as tetanus and hepatitis, as well as high rates of infant mortality.
For years, the makeshift settlements of the Zabbaleen were moved around the city trying to avoid the municipal authorities. Finally, a large group of Zabbaleen settled under the cliffs of the Moquattam quarries at the eastern edge of the city, which has now grown from a population of 8,000 in the early 1980s, into the largest garbage collector community in Cairo, with approximately 50,000 Zabbaleen inhabitants. Today there are also four other Zabbaleen settlements scattered around the Greater Cairo area, including the smaller settlement of Torah.