THE WOMEN OF THE HILLS WHO SERVE YOU TEA

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

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.

The la­bor­ers

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.

PRO­VIDED BY MALAKA RO­DRIGO

Tea pluck­ers on their way from one gar­den to an­other.

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED BY MALAKA RO­DRIGO AND VISHWAMITHRA KADU­RUGA­MUWA

Tea pick­ers at work; part of the vast tea land in cen­tral Sri Lanka; small­holder tea farmers.

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