New Dawn for Egypt: Discovering the Power of Rural Egyptians

Dina Omar is social counselor with CRS/Egypt. She recently traveled to some of the poorest areas in the country to explore new ways for CRS to support these very vulnerable communities.

After the revolution of January 25, 2011, which brought an end to a regime of 30 years, Egypt is in some ways a completely different country. For one thing, there is a curfew in Cairo and other big cities, which means we cannot travel at night like we used to. More importantly, we at Catholic Relief Services are expanding our programming and developing many new projects since there are many new opportunities to do exciting things.

One of the new USAID grants we’re hoping to win is for community development in Southern Egypt so we had to go there to interview five potential partner organizations we may work with. In the very early morning on a Thursday, my colleagues Kathryn, Mahitab and I piled into a minibus and headed to the city of Minya about 65 miles from Cairo We left at 6 a.m. because that was the earliest we could travel after curfew was lifted for the day. Even though I’ve lived in Egypt my whole life, this was my first time passing through any of the areas south of Cairo.

In the bus, as we started heading south, we discussed who would ask what in the interviews and made sure that each of us understood all the questions to be asked. The driver took an unpaved road before entering the military highway. This is a new road to Upper Egypt only completed two years ago. After making sure that everything was perfect we fell asleep. When we woke up a few hours later, we looked around and saw nothing but desert and blue skies and sand and a very nice new paved highway.

We were supposed to be in Minya at 9 a.m. but because of the unpaved road we arrived at 10 a.m. in this southern City on the banks of the Nile. We arrived at the office of our partner agency, St. Mark and already there were two potential partners waiting for the interviews. Some of them had travelled six hours to join us!

We were amazed by how well educated and visionary the people in Upper Egypt are. I had always heard that the whole region was full of villages and farmers, and I didn’t expect to find any industry or development or business people. The image I had was that the culture of Upper Egypt was for women to stay at home and not work, only helping their husbands on the farm and accepting their fate. I thought people from Upper Egypt were not well educated and that they did not know about human rights or women’s rights. However, the trip to Minya showed me something very different. We met women who work actively in community development, and the men listened to the opinions of their women colleagues. Two of the potential partner organizations brought a team of a man and a woman, and the women were very outspoken, expressing their goals and ideas, and they clearly had a lot of experience. We were impressed by their professionalism, and also at how they commanded the respect of men in the room.

The potential partner that we met had big goals for their communities, and well-developed systems and business plans. They clearly cared about the development of their region, both economically and socially. Not only as organizations, but personally, we could tell they were willing to help people. One organisation, REDEC, who had actually worked with CRS previously, has many, many different projects for development. They do advocacy, provide access to microfinance credit, and offer job opportunities. One of their most exciting projects is to help bee farmers make high-quality black honey and then sell it for a profit. This organization has access to even the most isolated villages in their area. We enjoyed talking with them because they are very flexible in their programming, willing to try new ideas and expand their activities according to the significant needs that surround them.

Our hosts at St. Mark’s are very hard-working people. We had long meetings back-to-back and never even took a break to eat. The most difficult part of the day was in the early afternoon when we were getting pressed for time in order to go back to Cairo before nightfall. Our fourth interview was with a man who talks a lot. He was smart and enthusiastic, and he did not want us to miss any of the little details about his group’s programming, nor did he want there to be any risk of misunderstanding. While we liked his stories, we just wanted him to stop talking! But our friends from St. Mark’s were very gracious and encouraged us to continue the conversation.

In fact, we learned a lot from St. Mark’s on that day about Upper Egypt hospitality. We also learned a lot from them about the competition for new projects in Upper Egypt. Everyone has great ideas and is hard-working so it is natural that they are competing for projects. They all know each other and talk about each other. We were told that the reputation of an NGO in Upper Egypt is like the reputation of a young woman: everyone knows about them and once their reputation is ruined it is almost impossible to recover. But fortunately, none of the people we met that day had a bad reputation!

When we finally pulled away from the St. Marks office and immediately we begged the driver to stop at the nearest KFC to get some food. We were so inspired by the organizations we had met, but we couldn’t think or talk about it until we had something to eat.

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