THE WOMEN OF THE HILLS WHO SERVE YOU TEA
herever you go in Sri Lanka, coconuts seem to be ever present, but they are not the country’s most lucrative crop; that crown belongs to tea.
I came to this realization as a bus took me and other reporters on a United Nations-organized trip deeper and deeper into the country’s mountainous central highlands.
Traveling all the way from the northwestern coast, we had for hours entertained ourselves with the monotonous view of coconut trees — a seemingly endless parade that led one to believe that the country lived on this plant. (In a sense this is true if you have tasted enough of the coconut milk-infused local cuisine.)
Occasionally we would also pass by salt factories, paddy fields, humble village houses and grazing cows that often had egrets as their companions and never bothered with an outsider. When we were on the highway, a Sri Lankan reporter told me that a few years back the roads were punctuated by checkpoints as a result of the country’s 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
Then we went into some colorful and chaotic town center, where a truckload of people whooping passed by. They were heading for work at the tea plantations, I was told.
For the next two days I visited Ratnapura and Mattakale, where the view of the misty, terraced tea fields is stunning for someone from China, the tea country. Because of history and geography, most of the tea farms in China are small to medium-sized, with green tea being the major produce. In Sri Lanka it is black tea that holds sway, mostly grown on big plantations that, with most of the workers living on the ground, constitute mini-universes of their own. Ceylon tea, a muchprized form of black tea, is Sri Lanka’s most famous export.
Bearwell Estate, one of the 13 tea estates under Talawakelle Plantation PLC, was among our stops. The estate covers 307 hectares on lease from the Sri Lankan government for 99 years since 1992. The annual rent paid to the government is about 350,000 rupees ($2,300), rising gradually every year.
Dulshanka Jayathilaka, manager of the estate, said the best conditions for cultivating tea are sunny mornings followed by a shower in the afternoon. This year there has been a drought.
In fact, although it was mid March, it was very hot. A couple of dozen tea pickers were working in the fields, each holding in hand a long, slim bamboo pole. The pole functions as a ruler, the workers placing the pole horizontally over a patch of tea bush and picking those leaves that have grown over a certain height. In this way they manage to maintain the slope in the terraced tea land.
Working in small groups, the tea pickers’ sun-tanned faces seemed to have receded into the head scarflike bundle of cloth that they wore
I saw glimmering light coming from the valleys below. ... it struck me that every shard of light could represent a tea picker’s family.” Zhao Xu, first person
on their head. Also tied on their head was a big cloth bag, so big that it extended from the head right to the back and then to the lower half of the body. All the weight falls onto a worker’s head, which explains why they all bent slightly forward as they moved amid the tea fields, continually throwing tea leaves into the bags as they plucked.
The monthly salary is about 10,000 rupees ($66) for a quota of 18 kilograms a day, and a worker is paid an extra 25 rupees for each kilogram above that quota. It is an open question as to whether sustaining such weight with one’s head and forehead over many years can stunt or even reverse growth. (On some plantations, minors are still being used as laborers). But almost all the tea pickers are women whose stamina makes it possible for them to be in the job for many years, sometimes their entire working life.
Some were physically exquisite. That same morning I met a young lady in her house on the estate, a three-bedroom bungalow she shared with 11 of her family including her parents. Her mother, whose first name is Thangamma, meaning gold, had been picking tea for more than 40 years until age and severe respiratory disease forced her to quit.
She said she was once given an award by the plantation management for hard work — picking 100 kilos of tea leaves a day — little consolation when the disease struck and no compensation was offered. I later brought this issue up with the estate manager, who said that all the workers are insured against workplace accidents such as falls resulting in broken bones.
Yet the chance of having such an accident seems remote — the tea trees are so densely planted that cutting into them requires some effort. On the other hand, it would no doubt be extremely difficult, legally and medically, to prove a connection, let alone causation, between the use of pesticides and respiratory diseases if one existed.
Now the daughter, with big bright eyes, long legs and an elegant demeanor that belie her humble calling, has followed in her mother’s footsteps.
A normal working day starts at 8 am. There is a half-hour tea break at 10 am and lunch is taken between noon and 1:30 pm. The workers can call it a day at 4:30 pm. This year’s drought has given many a hard time, especially those who are not on the permanent payroll.
I met five of them, including a 20-year-old mother who was on her first day of work after having given birth to a daughter three months ago. (Both of the young women’s parents are tea pickers.) On their way from one tea estate to another they complained about not having enough leaves to pick to support their families. Looking slightly reticent, the young mother also said that as a casual laborer she is not entitled to any maternity leave.
Thangamma’s daughter is free of that worry — all the tea garden workers in Bearwell are on the permanent payroll, with maternity pay of 7,000 rupees for three months. But because of the drought the estate is limited to giving her family one hour of drinking water a day. Her husband, father of the family, has just retired from his work at the tea estate but was now looking for a new job. Before we left, he placed in my hand a few sheets of his own CV and a recommendation letter given by the estate management, and scrutinized my face with expectant eyes.
Then all of us reporters ducked into several cars — the bus would not do on the narrow mountain road — and waved goodbye toward a group of tea pickers who had gathered around. One of the ladies, who stood on the fringe of the crowd with arms crossed in front of her chest, was fighting back tears.
Earlier, upon our arrival at the estate, we were welcomed by small children who presented us with braided wreaths of tea leaves. Wearing clean uniforms and abashed smile, these four to six-year-olds represent their families’ futures, as their parents would probably try everything to ensure that they do not stand on the land picking tea.
An Indian freelance reporter who traveled with me, Stella Paul, briefed me on the tea history in this part of the world, including India and Sri Lanka.
“It was inextricably linked with the region’s colonial past. In the case of India, the British came, found the land in Assam ideal for tea growing and started to bring in laborers.”
Vicissitudes of life
Many of the earliest workers were tramps lured onto the tea plantations by the promise of an easy life who instead found themselves indentured laborers driven to death by hard work. Over the past year, as a sore reminder of the brutal history, the tea pickers in Assam, who are the offspring of those early laborers, have been demanding to be recognized as a separate group, a group not defined by the caste system. (The caste system, according to my friend, is very much alive in India.)
“Centuries of isolation — all the tea plantations are located deep in the mountains — have given them a unique culture, culture they’ve maintained with mixed feelings,” Paul said.
From the early 16th century until Sri Lanka’s proclamation of independence on Feb 4, 1948, the country has been under colonial rule — partially or completely — by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British consecutively. The British introduced tea plantations to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.
To solve the labor shortage, 50,000 workers were brought in from India.
When our bus drove through the tea land at night I saw glimmering light coming from the valleys below.
As this light abruptly appeared and then disappeared as we made twists and turns on the tortuous mountain road, it struck me that every shard of light could represent a tea picker’s family.
It reminded me of the crosses, tomb markers standing along certain sections of the road, at the foot of the mountain. In previous days I had seen Portuguese-style churches wedged between a typical leafy Sri Lankan courtyard and a Buddhist monastery. It was this sight of the humble-looking Christian tombstones — whose owners were most likely to be tea pickers or growers — that was one of the most memorable moments of my journey.
Once upon a time their ancestors were the conquerors. But the vicissitudes of life have changed many things, weaving different lives — those of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians — together on this ancient land, with a history much richer than a cup of Ceylon tea.
Tea pluckers on their way from one garden to another.
Tea pickers at work; part of the vast tea land in central Sri Lanka; smallholder tea farmers.