“Roba vecchia”, how old traditions become solutions to contemporary challenges in Egypt
by Alma Selvaggia Rinaldi
Cairo, 2022 – one may often be awakened by the screaming sound bekkia or roba vecchia resonating throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities’ streets. The Italian origin of the term literally translates to “old stuff”. Throughout the years, resorting from a deep voice to the use of loudspeakers, the street buyers’ call for the purchase of any material has become part of Cairo’s soul, one of its iconic sounds. Evolving from riding a bike attached to a wheelbarrow, a donkey-drawn cart or a small van to mention some, the street trade men look to buy any spare item, from a wire to a piece of metal or clothing. Once the cart is full, the destination shifts from homes to warehouses, where all items are dismantled to sell their components separately. For instance, the copper of a computer screen will be sold, while the glass particles of the latter will be thrown away – a first step towards recycling. A constance of Egyptian identity, this practice continues to change throughout the years, presently embodying a solution to Egypt’s garbage problems.
Cairo, among other cities in Egypt, has faced waste management issues for decades, remaining a constituting danger to the city and its people despite the government’s efforts to change the situation since the 1960s. Now, the screams of Cairo’s bekkias embody a solution.
By intertwining the latter’s desire to re-use Egyptian residents’ unused tools, which would otherwise become part of the capital’s garbage mountains, with technology, old traditions manifest hope for change for new generations. Indeed, internet competition is now a challenge for street traders, shifting the conception of their slogan from an attempt for randomised deals to the development of recycling systems. Now, trash can be monetized, and waste is a tool of exchange for food.
The street sellers’ tradition now engages with youth wishes to live in a cleaner environment through the online platform created by the start-up Bekia which operates in eighteen areas in both Cairo and Giza. In 2017, Mohamed Zohry and Alaa Kamal co-founded the latter, offering a space to break the cycle of Egyptians’ avoidance to recycle by accustoming bekkias to the concept of exchanging their waste for basic food and home utilities. For instance, cooking oil is gathered to be turned into biofuel used for certain types of cars. The digitalisation of this business allows for the localisation of valuable trash through an app; once items are collected, one obtains points quantified by the number of pieces and whether these can be recycled or not. These points can then be used to purchase a variety of products, directly delivered to people’s doors, and they can also be donated to charity.
What used to be a way to earn one’s life has now become a tool to engage in contemporary problematics by engaging older and younger generations into a recycling system that feeds into purchasing opportunities. From removing large quantities of garbage from slum areas due to higher incentives for the latter to be collected to increasing awareness about consumption and providing aid to slum and poorer areas by decreasing the cost of food, longstanding Egyptian traditions now embody a solution to contemporary garbage issues throughout Egypt.