Calling All Kids

From Garbage City to New Life in Egypt

An Egyptian boy waves his Kingo flag. Photo by Malorie Tull.

The first thing that strikes you is the volume — the sound of thousands of children singing and clapping, as more and more stream in. For a moment, the heat and grime of the surrounding shantytown are forgotten. The amazing power of God's Word unleashes a palpable joy.

Welcome to Egypt's Kingo Festival, here at the heart of Cairo's Garbage City.

Rising from the Dump

Garbage City is not the first place you'd look to find this sort of radiant joy. Home to more than 40,000 people, Garbage City has scant running water and electricity. Its dirty and dust-blown streets are impossibly narrow. Donkey-drawn carts jockey with heavily laden, diesel trucks. People step carefully and quickly, picking a path between piled trash and running sewage.

Garbage City residents are known as the “Zabbaleen” (garbage collectors). They live and work in multifamily shanties packed into crowded blocks. Each dwelling is stacked two and three stories high, with a large first-floor room open for business — piled wall-to-wall with trash. Crouched over each day's newly collected refuse, whole families are at work — men lifting and bagging the trash, women separating cans, children sorting out plastics, all seeking any reusable and resalable items.

The work is grim, grimy and slow. It is the job of those doing whatever it takes to feed families and children in one of Cairo's poorest neighborhoods.

Girls waving their Kingo flags at a Kingo festival in Cairo. Photo by Geof Morin

Can't Lose our Kids

But there is another story here in Garbage City. In a place where an entire city has dumped its trash, God has raised up a vital Christian community. And for the children here, the highlight of the year may well be the Kingo Festivals of the Bible Society of Egypt (BSE).

Word of mouth is all it takes. With no more than a few days notice, more than 2,000 children are streaming toward the community's cave turned church. Using an original Scripture video series created by the American Bible Society, BSE has now transformed this Bible-based curriculum into a traveling Christian outreach festival for Egypt's children.

The host for these events is Kingo, a loveable lion character, on stage in life-size costume, who has now become what General Secretary Ramez Atallah calls “Egypt's Bible rock star.” But more than a celebrity, Kingo plays a vital role. “[Kingo] provides what we need,” says Ramez, “a way to keep our children strongly linked to Christ. Without that, we could lose many of our kids.”

Demand is Growing

Hours of back-breaking setting up of equipment, days of practicing drama and songs, weeks of liaising with local groups and a continuous cycle of planning is the huge effort the Bible Society of Egypt puts into staging a Kingo children's event. But so are the results: across the country, children who otherwise have little contact with God's Word are encountering positive biblical messages and are learning to apply Christian principles to their own lives. So, too, are their families.

In 2005, a trial run saw 15,000 children attend live Kingo events. The combination of drama, singing, puppets, storytelling, quizzes and an ultraviolet light show, along with a Kingo flag to wave and a cassette of Kingo songs to take home, proved more popular than anybody at the Bible Society or its partner churches and organizations could have imagined. And demand continues to rise.

“The Kingo events are often a celebration for the entire community, not just the children,” says Dr. Ehab Tanas, director of Sales and Church Relations. “Whole families come together and people open their homes and hearts to us. They are so grateful for what we are doing for their children.”

Gospel Opportunities

Here in Garbage City — and in tents and churches and warehouses across Egypt — Kingo leads an action-packed hour of songs, stories, skits and dancing. As the stories of God's Word are vividly brought to life, eyes widen and smiles shine. By the final song, the overall message has pierced each child's heart: “There is a great and wonderful God who knows me and loves me deeply. I am not forgotten.”

Before leaving, each child is given his/her own Scripture resources and an invitation to continue learning and growing in ongoing discipleship opportunities with local churches. This past summer alone, more than 140,000 children were reached through dozens of events, now happening all across Egypt.

But this audience is still only a fraction of the children of this predominantly Muslim nation. As Ramez describes, “I have always been the sort of person who looks at a glass as half full. If you can't go through a door — find a window. Right now, we can't keep up with the opportunities.”

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