Bright and early on Saturday morning, all we can think of is a warm cup of coffee, an omelette with just the right amount of cheese (is there such thing as too much cheese?), and some peace and quiet to detox us from the chaos of the week. Instead, a huge crowd of people showed up at the Egyptian Sailing and Water Ski Federation in Cairo's el Manial at 8:45 AM – to do what? To clean up the Nile. I showed up to this Nile cleanup event, which was held by Greenish and VeryNile in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment as a part of its Youth for the Nile initiative, and was amazed by the number of people who had showed up so early to clean. Cleaning is not a pastime Egyptians are particularly fond of, yet mere minutes of their contagious excitement and energy was enough to get anyone to start looking for a pair of gloves and hop on the first available boat – even someone like me who didn't have a clue where she was going or what she was doing but damn it I'm going to clean the Nile!
As the boats moved to their respective cleanup destinations, you found yourself sitting with what can only be described as the friends you never knew you had.
Everyone arrived bright and early for registration so the organizers could get the logistics sorted out, but the boats didn't start moving before a few morning pep talks from Greenish Co-Founder Shady Abdalla, actress and Greenish Goodwill Ambassador May el Gheity, actor Ahmed Magdy, and Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad who thanked everyone involved and highlighted that the Ministry's efforts would go in vein without the Egyptian youth taking part in maintaining their environment.
As the boats moved to their respective cleanup destinations, you found yourself sitting with what can only be described as the friends you never knew you had; everyone was super welcoming, sharing what brought them out to the cleanup and getting to know each other – united by the cause that brought us here in the first place, we somehow managed to skip the small talk and awkward smiles and jump right into the fond and familiar "how's it going?"
A lot of people with different backgrounds and stories, yet once we stepped out of the boat we were all one – armed with our gloves and biodegradable plastic bags, ready to take on the trash. You could add boots, a shovel, or a even a rake to your armor as you embark on your adventure, with plastic being the number one enemy. As you wade and adventure through whatever odds and ends you find along the way, the trick is not to spend too much time figuring out what you've picked up and just toss it in the bag. Time is of the essence!
I quickly noticed that youth were the dominant demographic, but anybody older in age would be pouring everything into their cleanup efforts with such a passion for the cause that looks driven by the fact that, quite frankly, they've had enough. Seeing how aware, invested, and devoted the youth are to the environment definitely gave my heart hope for the future. While some traveled from as far as Alexandria just to take part in the cleanup, what caught me completely by surprise was discovering that, to them, it wasn't just about the Nile cleanup – they were invested in environmental sustainability itself. One of the guys who had come all the way from Alexandria is studying marketing but hopes to start a business that tends to the environment through similar cleanup initiatives. On the flip side, my boat was filled with engineering students, one of whom hopes to use his studies in electrical engineering to support the environment through field of renewable energy. Of course that's aside from the Sea Scouts from the Ain Shams Faculty of Science clan who stood out not only for their distinct uniforms but also for the ridiculous amount of bags they were all carrying. Since we were cleaning at the Egyptian Sailing and Ski Federation, some of the athletes who had just finished training hopped on board and started helping us with whatever we needed. I definitely didn't see that coming, but I guess I also didn't expect to make new Dutch and German friends while cleaning the Nile on a boat in Cairo. I noticed how confused they were due to the language barrier but felt very united with the global cause, so I jumped in to help ease the confusion. What they had in store was more than I imagined. The two are currently living on a farm in Belbeis that's part of a sustainable zero waste project; the guy has been there for five months, while she's only been there for a month – and, yes, they came all the way from Belbeis to Manial for the cleanup.
While we were cleaning on the banks of the river we came across the children of the fishermen living there, and I couldn’t help but notice the curiosity in their eyes as they whispered, 'why are those people doing this?'
The girl was on my boat so I got the chance to learn that she's actually very invested in everything related to the environment, specifically plastic – how to get rid of it, using environmentally friendly plastic, recycling plastic, etc. Her devotion to the cause made her go around giving sessions in schools, and getting involved in environmentally-friendly events and activities to raise awareness back in the Netherlands. I was amazed, until she added that she was here fighting on behalf of nature during her gap year; now I was mesmerized, and couldn't believe she chose to spend her year in Belbeis over any other part of the world. By the end of the day, I looked over to see how they'd moved seamlessly from being confused foreigners to unleashing their passionate anti-plastic soldiers.
While we were cleaning on the banks of the river we came across the children of the fishermen living there, and I couldn’t help but notice the curiosity in their eyes as they whispered, 'why are those people doing this?' I thought, if I can start a conversation and get to them to tell me their names, I will get them to join; that's when they proved they were friendlier than me – within minutes I knew all of their names, their ages, and a few extra names and ages of absent siblings/cousins. Without giving it a second thought, I gave Fatma my gloves and we agreed to take turns cleaning because I didn't have enough gloves; one minute later, Hussein, Reham Yasmine, and two-year-old Hana were all busy filling the bag with us. And this is how I became the 'aunt', with a group of children running around with bags full of trash, then going back with 4 empty bags for each one of them to fill their own.
And this is how I know they'll never forget this – because their parents were part of it, setting an example for them.
At first, their mom was watching from afar; then she ended up getting closer and giving them instructions, though she didn't partake herself. Soon after, their dad joined in the cleanup as well; this is when our excitement was at its peak, and it was noticeable as they were all running around to provide the dad with whatever he might need to join in the adventure. And this is how I know they'll never forget this – because their parents were part of it, setting an example for them. I tried my best to explain to them why we're targeting plastic, and that it stays for a longer time than food for example. Seeing the looks on their faces as they saw what their place looked like once we were done, I'm sure this is something they'll always remember.When we were back on the shore having a snack and some refreshments, all I could think of was that I need to avoid the environmentally friendly workshops they had set up for us. I love working with my hands, and I knew that if I stopped there, time would stop for me. But of course I couldn't resist the colours, the strings, the glue, and using plastic bottles as plant pots – come on, who could say no to that! I ended up with two plants and paint-stained pants.While I was letting the artist in me free, I noticed that the Van Gogh standing next to me was the young actress May El Gheity, who I learned is not only taking part in Greenish events because she is their Goodwill Ambassador, but she's keen on attending as many as possible because she believes in what they're doing and is interested in spreading the knowledge of a more sustainable way of living, and environmentally-friendly daily habits. We both noticed the high youth turnout, which she thinks is a reflection of their mindset nowadays that has started to shift toward environmental causes, and that they're not just there to check out a cool event and post some pictures on social media.
At the end of the day, the Minster of Environment announced that, in the span of three hours, around 300 volunteers were able to collect from 3 to 4 tonnes of garbage. In order to mark this task completed, we had to move our artistic mountain of garbage from right in the middle of the space to the truck heading to Garbage City for the plastic to start its recycling journey. In minutes, as if we are programmed, two human chains were formed with hands loaded with bags leading to the truck.
It doesn't just stop at the Nile; Greenish is set to travel to 10 destinations across Egypt this year, from Nuweiba to Luxor. I suggest you join them, and you'd be doing yourself the favour more so than the environment. The places they travel to are actually interesting destinations you'd want to go to anyway, so might as well go and do something to give back to the world while you're at it – or at the very least to Egypt. But if you're one of those people who's passionate about travel and the environment, you'll have found yourself a community of likeminded travelers who won't make you feel like some sort of space alien – who'll understand why you keep a trash bin in your car and take little detours to avoid stepping on the grass, and who'll not only join you in grumbling about the lack of garbage bins in the streets, but will join you in doing something about it.