CAIRO: Om Ahmed Anwar Shahin, a 35-year-old mother of five who lives in Dahshour, runs her own daycare center, teaches a course on tourism, supervises an income-generating project and sells handmade jewelry on the side.
Shahin’s drive and ambition was bolstered by the Dahshour World Heritage Site for Community Development, launched two years ago and aimed at helping the community to develop its skills and turn Dahshour into a premium travel destination.
Dahshour, a bumpy 90-minute ride from Cairo, was declared by the UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site, an area rich in archeology, culture, ecosystem, but more than anything else the local community and its determination to earn their town the recognition it deserves.
“We have it all, history, environment, culture and local handmade crafts that you can find no where else,” said Shahin.
Shahin has been running her own daycare center for three years. “We teach [children] the alphabet and numbers and also have entertaining activities that are educational,” she explained.
Many mothers in Dahshour bring their children to the daycare center in order to attend literacy classes or go to work, Shahin said.
But having her own successful business wasn’t enough for Shahin who later joined a training course offered by the Ministry of Tourism for the people of Dahshour.
“Learning the historical and environmental value of Dahshour made me love it more and more and never want to leave it, I wanted to raise awareness and let everyone know about Dahshour,” she explained.
Upon completing the course, Shahin was certified to teach it, having an exponential effect as so far she already offered three classes of tourism training, each containing 20 students.
Shahin also attended a training course on handicrafts. “We are making our own accessories so when the tourists come they buy it,” she said.
She is also supervising an income-generating project by Plan International NGO.
“I’m not the only one; there are many working mothers here, people have to know that the women in the countryside do not only raise children, we have ambitions and we set out to accomplish them,” she explained, acknowledging the help from her mother and sister.
“Our husbands also encourage us, contrary to popular belief,” Shahin added.
Dahshour is part of the Memphite necropolis from the era of King Snefru, the first king of the fourth dynasty. It is known for its Bent and Red Pyramids. The first represents a transitional pyramid form believed to have been the result of an engineering crisis encountered during its construction, while the Red Pyramid is the world’s first smooth-sided pyramid.
Furthermore, on the environmental level, the desert turns into a vast winter lake, and inviting a variety of immigrant birds to its waters.
World Heritage Site for Community Development
Two years ago, a UN joint program was launched in Dahshour aimed at helping the community to develop skills and to turn the place into a premium travel destination.
The Dahshour World Heritage Site for Community Development project brings together the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Social Fund for Development (SFD) and local NGOs, who are joining hands to enhance local economic development through capacity building programs, developing decent working conditions and promoting an entrepreneurship culture among the Dahshour rural population.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the Ministry of Tourism are promoting the development of sustainable tourism and supporting tourism-based small businesses through training, creation of a local guide association and developing a tourism strategy.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Industrial Modernization Centre (IMC) are providing technical services and training for entrepreneurship.
“The key feature, and what makes Dahshour unique, is that it’s the only site in Egypt, and probably in the world, where there is interaction between archaeology, nature and community,” said Mohamed Shaker, general coordinator of the project.
“From here we want to create a successful management of the place, make it a model site,” Shaker added, explaining that five UN organizations have come together with five governmental organizations with the objective of protecting and managing the natural, archeological and cultural resources of Dahshour as well as supporting the local community.
“On the local level, the community [can work on] poverty reduction through numerous projects such as the promotion of tourism which will create job opportunities,” he said.
In the two years since the start of the project, Shaker noted many ongoing changes. First, local residents recognized the importance and value of Dahshour, whether on the environmental level or on the historical level, and this gave them a sense of pride, he explained.
Second, the project helped create a growing community of handcrafters. “More than 300 men and women have developed the industry of embroidery, accessory, handmade carpets,” he said.
Interestingly, the training courses and workshops teaching handcrafting are using available materials, such as palm trees. Many lay palm trees branches on the streets for cars to drive over and smoothen, making them easier to use.
“People went from having no talent and no income to making their own business and generating income and independently improve their standard of living,” said Shaker.
The third major change he observed is the touristic potential. “The people want to put Dahshour on the touristic map, they’re protecting the place to attract tourists and benefit the tourism industry,” he said.
A tourist destination
In the effort to promote Dahshour as a tourist destination, the World Tourism Organization in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism celebrated World Tourism Day on Sept. 28 in Dahshour, with the governor of Giza and other officials attending the event.
“We’ve helped the people believe and appreciate the uniqueness of Dahshour, the traditional lifestyle is of interest besides the history, culture and nature,” Vanessa C. Satur, project coordinator at the World Tourism Organization, said.
Dahshour is divided into five villages, with a total population of about 70,000 people. In order to give everyone an equal chance to contribute in the development of the town, the Dahshour Local Economic Development Forum was launched.
Each village elected 10 people to represent them at the forum. Twenty-four-year-old Marwa Mohamed Khalil was elected to represent her village and has been occupying the position for two years.
“I had the option of staying at home and getting married but I chose to work and I fulfill my obligation towards my community which drove me to run in the elections,” said the student at the open university where she studies business, alongside a board member in the Dahshour Youth Center.
“A lot of people took part in the training courses, whether it’s the tourism or the small business management workshops, but these will come to use later when there are actually tourists coming in and businesses created out of them,” said Khalil.
She finds that the most successful workshops were those dealing with handicrafts as they encouraged people to produce with minimal cost, and thus generating profit.
“We want to establish a training center for handicrafts, with a bazaar beside it to display the products because at the moment we depend on exhibitions which are on a small scale and are inconsistent,” she explained.
Even though a lot has been accomplished in Dahshour especially since the project started, there is a long way to go in Khalil’s opinion, who outlined various problems standing in the way of making Dahshour a premium tourist destination.
“How can this be done with these roads leading to Dahshour, what bus will come here and who will come here when there is not a clear area to walk through to reach the pyramids and the lake,” she said.
Khalil also noted that there needs to be a cleaning company in order to beautify the villages. Another problem is the agricultural land, “We are a rich area but all that is jeopardized by the buildings being constructed on agricultural lands, action needs to be taken.”
On top of all this, the most important thing in Khalil’s perspective is that the local people know the importance of tourism for them and their village. “People need to be prepared to interact with tourists and learn how to deal with them, welcome them, market the area and sell their products,” she pointed out.
Khalil noted that the workshops and trainings held via the project have been successful but so far they’ve only reached around 5,000 people in each village where there are approximately 15,000 people.
While the journey might seem long, the people of Dahshour have the will and the determination. “You’ll see one day they’ll be saying ‘Made in Dahshour’ like they say ‘Made in China’,” said Shahin.