Painting the town red

21 Oct

One of the classes I’m teaching this semester is on the Civil Rights Movement. I figured it was a good opportunity to give my students a little hands-on experience along with what they read in the books, so I incorporated a community-based learning project into the class. We got hooked up with an NGO working in one of the many slums in Cairo, and later in the semester my students are going to be teaching adult literacy classes for some of the women there, with the theme of educating them about some of their basic civil rights (sort of along the lines of the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in the 1960s).

This past Saturday, we made our first visit to the community, called Establ Antar. Rather than launching into the literacy classes right off, we planned an entrance activity of helping to paint some of the community members’ homes. For many of my students, most of whom come from Egypt’s elite, it was their first visit to one of these really poor neighborhoods, even though they have lived in Cairo for most or all of their lives. Actually, once we got there is wasn’t as bad as I might have imagined…although deep and systemic poverty is the norm here in Cairo, and maybe I’m just used to seeing it by now. Anyone coming straight from the States would be shocked, I think.

We first took a tour of the community, which is perched on a small limestone cliff just north of Maadi (the nice area of town where we, and many other expats and wealthy Egyptians, live). Just living on the cliff is hazardous, as dramatized a couple months ago when a similar cliff in another part of town collapsed in a rockslide, killing dozens of people below its rubble. (The government, showing just how removed they are from ordinary citizens, blamed the people themselves for living there, even though it’s not like they have any other choice.) We saw the ubiquitous piles of garbage, and were swarmed by kids, who were thrilled when my students started to play soccer with them.

At one point the police showed up (apparently they had filled their daily quota of sitting lazily by the side of the road). They asked the NGO worker who was escorting us why she was showing this part of Cairo — rather than the more upscale Maadi or Zamalek — to foreigners. Of course, most of my students are Egyptian, and one of the gathering crowd from the neighborhood told the police, “They’re not foreigners…except for the one,” gesturing toward me, “with the red ears.” My students thought that was almost as hilarious as the fact that before we left the bus I put on sunscreen just to go outside. Just call me Professor Whitey (with the red ears).

When we finished the tour, my students were ready to paint. Of course, this being Egypt, they only had one roller for about every three students. We divided into groups and were taken to different homes around the community, where people had paid 10 Egyptian pounds (a little less than $2) to have the job done. (10 pounds is a substantial sum to some of them, but the NGO charges them so they don’t feel they’re just recipients of charity, and to give them some ownership over the project.) The walls weren’t treated, and on most of them we were just painting over several other layers of cheap paint, so it often chipped and peeled as we rolled the paint on. It wasn’t exactly professional grade, but after a few hours we got a decent first coat on several houses throughout the community.

I was especially proud of the way my students rolled up their sleeves and got to work, not grumbling even in less than ideal circumstances. They were also great ambassadors for the university and for themselves, as they really reached out to the residents, particularly the children and the people whose homes they were painting. As for me, I felt my foreignness even more than usual, since nobody in the community spoke any English…and the fact that apparently I have unusually red ears.

Here are a few pictures of the community, the kids, and my students:


Street view in Establ Antar


Smoking plus paint fumes…yum.

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2 Responses to “Painting the town red”

  1. Dre October 22, 2008 at 12:04 am #

    How could we have ever known that our frail and weakened child would do so much good in the world? And, your brothers would ask, where did you learn to do something as blue collar as paint? You make us very proud.

  2. John October 22, 2008 at 3:16 am #

    As the Germans would say, Patrick, you are a Mensch.

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