Posted on July 27, 2015
Sri Lanka. No doubt a beautiful country. The lowlands are surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean rhythmically rolling onto white sandy beaches of the island.
The central highlands, a jungle of green where a cool temperate climate offers a perfect environment for Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar-a-year tea industry. Lush tea plantations scattered throughout the picturesque scenery.
Nestled within the highlands is the city of Nuwara Eliya, one of the premium tea growing areas of the world. High above the clamor of the lowlands, the verdant landscape feels as if time has stood still.
In many ways it has, as for centuries the tea plantations have counted on the quiet exploitation of the Tamil minority group, members of the lowest caste system in Sri Lanka, to pick tea leaves. Isolated in the remote mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, it is the Tamil women who make up the work force that keep this industry flowing.
The life of a tea picker is hard, long days combined with squalor living conditions make it clear why Tamil Indian laborers were imported into the country so long ago to fill such jobs. Jobs locals refused to take.
Upon a wall of a dilapidated shack in a plantation housing project, eight simple words summarizes generations of thought for tea pickers here in Nuwara Eliya: “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.”
A place with little hope, yet the little hope of today is more than they imagined a decade ago.
She looks down at her calloused hands. Her day picking tea leaves having just ended, she winces at the pain as she lifts her bag of leaves and gives them to the field manager.
Ahead is a hard hour hike home over the hill where she will busy herself with chores, fetch water, cook dinner for her family and then spend what little time remains with her reason for living: her beautiful baby daughter.
Tears well up in her eyes as she honestly wonders if this is as good as it gets.
Every day is the same bad dream, the same hell. Day in. Day out. She wakes up prior to dawn and sets out to the tea fields, plucking tea until dusk and then takes the long hike home. Praying for no harassment, praying for a peaceful night. She understands this is the fate of a Tamil woman on a tea plantation: a woman with little power, a woman with little control of her life.
Sadness hits when she realizes if her young daughter is lucky enough, she may have at best a similar fate. “If she is lucky…” Quickly she erases any such negative thought from her mind.
As a member of the Tamil minority group working in a male dominated culture, there simply are few options available for her, her daughter or their future.
This thought breaks her heart.
She looks out her doorway at a group of Save the Children workers and dreams the impossible dream for her daughter.
Could the promise of a safe environment for children; a school for her daughter to attend and learn the wonders of the world become a reality?
She allows herself to smile inwardly at such hope, but understands Sri Lanka and the history and culture of her people all to well to put such faith into the future.
Standing in the doorway, she ponders the stories and rumors of Save the Children, the hope this organization has brought to neighboring tea plantations. It is a glint of a possibility, the chance of future happiness for her daughter.
She steps closer to listen to the voices of the workers as supplies are dropped off, and before she is noticed she quickly slips back into her tiny shack.
As she begins to prepare dinner she senses a tingling of awareness, the freedom the human soul needs to dream and pursue experiences.
Tonight she is happy. She reflects back on the stories of suffering and repression told by her grandmother and mother, as well as the horrible experiences she’s had herself, but instead of defeat she sees hope. The hope the vicious cycle of oppression will end.
Generations upon generation of young women are born into servitude in the tea industry, forever working the tea fields of Sri Lankan tea plantations.
The high country of Nuwara Eliya, far removed from the large cities and their economic successes, has remained stuck in the dark ages. Business corruption and ancient ideas thousands of years old keep the Tamil people of this area stuck in purgatory.
The Tamils give their life and blood to the tea industry, making up 2% of the country’s GDP, a commitment spanning centuries. It is a hard life, and while the industry is trying to find a way to give back, there are conflicts of interest.
Business is business, and tea plantation owners are currently undergoing a deteriorating market for Ceylon Tea. In addition to the fear of further decreases in sales and higher costs of providing benefits to the field workers, plantation owners are also terrified of losing a cheap workforce by allowing freedoms and opportunities to the Tamil women and children.
Save the Children as well as other relief organizations have been working to break this relentless and cruel cycle robbing the potential of these children. It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth.
Change is not easy, especially given the tension between gender and class struggle seeped in cultural beliefs spanning millenniums. The Tamil women and children face daily battles in this quagmire of repression.
A Sri Lankan worker at Save the Children discussed the value the organization brings to the people of Nuwara Eliya, mentioning a quote from Swami Vivekananda, “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life.”
This piece of Hindu philosophy, an important part of their culture, rings hollow to them. It is difficult for them to grasp the idea of freedom not to mention the courage to act on such thoughts.
The people of Sri Lanka are the ones stepping up to make a difference. Sri Lankans with the wisdom to understand the value women and children have to their country and their efforts within the Save the Children system brings real change via the following programs:
Such programs provide the base to empower the women of Nuwara Eliya and of Sri Lanka. When hope is instilled in a group, confidence soon follows giving strength to tackle issues. Real change begins to take place.
The Tea Association of Sri Lanka is working with Save the Children on an updated branding model for Fair Trade Tea, a platform of reform for all large tea estates to provide specific and permanent benefits for women and children within their plantation.
In the past, salaries of women from the tea estates were transferred directly to the “man of the house” with the result of wages often wasted on alcohol or gambling.
No longer is this the case. Women now receive salaries directly so the money can be used to buy food and necessary items for childcare. This is empowerment. Step-by-step, change is happening. The dreams of children are beginning to form.
She again stands in the doorway, this time watching her grown daughter go off to work. Her daughter, as with past generations of her family continues the tradition of working on the tea estates…but here is a twist to the tale. Instead of picking leaves in a field far away, she is wearing a white blouse and has entered a nurse-in-training program at the local clinic.
Her daughter looks back and gives a quick smile before disappearing into the plantation’s maternity clinic.
Her eyes well up with tears once again as they had every evening in the past when she worked in the fields. This time, however, the tears of sadness are absent instead flowing down her cheeks are tears of pure happiness…
Save the Children and other aid groups such as World Vision are working in Sri Lanka to break the cycle of repression. To provide hope for children and their mothers, an opportunity to achieve what once was unimaginable: an education and a dream of advancement.
If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on a site listed below:
Posted on June 13, 2014
What more needs to be said? This is a perfect quote.
For us men, we take to heart the point of “while appearing lazy, we actually accomplish a lot.” A thought I toasted many a beer to during travels in Myanmar with our guide Mr. Thu.
Conversely, my sister Sandi and our other guide in Myanmar, Ms. Kay-K, had the opposing view, and while they agreed with the first part of the assessment of “being lazy”, they vehemently disagreed with the last part where men actually accomplish anything.
In fact, if I remember correctly, Kay-K’s comment was simply “men accomplishing something?!?” before she broke out in laughter along with my sister.
It was at this point I realized this may be a long trip. The banter began the first day during our drive out into the countryside and witnessing an endless amount of roadwork taking place.
The roadwork included strenuous labor; baskets and baskets of rocks being carried to-and-fro, digging, leveling and preparation of the road by pick and hand as the crew worked on repairs.
It was a matter of time before my sister asked the logical question, “Thu, there are only women doing this road work… where are the men?”
With a start, Thu snapped out of his nap, looked outside the car window, and nonchalantly replied: “Oh, the men? The men are in management…” and closed his eyes to go back to sleep. I stifled my laughter.
I thought Thu’s response was perfect, even though over the past decades of tormenting my three sisters about the ‘wonders of being a man’ I should have known a storm was inevitably brewing.
Hiding my smile, I would have high-fived Mr. Thu if he wasn’t fading back to sleep and I didn’t have a beer in each hand…
“It sounds like the old boys network,” my sister said to Kay-K. “Men in power, pretending to be significant while the rest of us do the real work that keeps us moving forward.”
“Of course, it is the same everywhere isn’t it?” cooed Kay-K, casting a wary eye my way. “Dalo, were you part of the old men’s club with your work in the USA?”
“Well, yeah, I suppose I was… I was part of a male upper-management team.” I quickly inhaled the last of my beer, a little worried at what I was getting myself into. Mr. Thu just opened one eye looking back at me as if to say “feign sleep, it’s your only way out…”
Yet before I could put my head back and close my eyes, Kay-K was quick to ask, “And was working with this company good for you?”
“Uh, yeah, it was nice. I was able to buy a nice house, save some money and take such nice trips as this…” I added, wondering where this was going, although knowing it was not going to end well and too late to do anything about it…
“And how about the company now; the common employees?” she looked at me inquisitively.
“Uh, well, I left the company last year but I do know that the employees there are struggling a bit as there have been huge cuts within the company, but they did announce record profits last year.” I smiled, and decided now was the time to close my eyes and try Thu’s trick of feigning sleep.
“Making cuts? Record profits?” Kay-K questioned, and laughed with a sharp tone, “and let me guess, the old men in the executive positions are walking away with big bonuses…”
With eyes closed, I let out a couple snores, hoping to dissolve the conversation.
Not sure how much time passed in our conversation, but the ‘pop’ of a fresh beer opening gave me away as my hand shot-out instinctively and Kay-K replaced the one I was holding with a fresh one.
Slowly squinting, I opened my eyes, checking to see if all was well and turned to look outside. Could not have been worse timing, as immediately we passed a group of women working the fields, and I felt Kay-K’s stare burning the back of my head.
Cracking a meager smile, I turned and said, “If I have learned correctly, the men are in management, elsewhere, correct?!?” Thu lifted up his beer in a silent toast as sarcastic jeers came from Kay-K and sis.
Ahead of us was Old Bagan, with some of the most beautiful landscapes one will ever see and I anxiously prepped my gear for a nice evening of shooting. As we started walking to one of the temples, Kay-K flashed a smile and said, “so, you take photographs and drink beer…that is very nice. You’d be a very good Myanmar man…” And with a laugh she ran and caught up with my sister.
The evening shoot was magical, the spirit of the people incredible…peaceful and playful. Mixed within these incredible archeological sites, Thu and Kay-K talked a lot about the history and culture of the land as well as the men and women.
“There is a saying that my Dad taught me and I take it to heart.” Thu said, “For men who think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, just remember that’s where the knives are kept.”
“Myanmar not too long ago was a matriarchal society, and women held all the right to inherit wealth and were leaders of villages…” Kay-K smiled. “Most men hate to admit to it, but it was a very prosperous period for our country.”
“And when women were forced into the background, guess what happened to our country…” Kay-K added, “power struggles, egos of men creating chaos. We lost generations of fresh minds and new ideas…it is sad. Why are men so moronic when it comes to fighting?”
I rubbed the small scar on my chin, a result of a long ago fight that even during the brawl I don’t think anyone knew what we were fighting for. Hmmm, probably not the best time to tell that story.
“We’ve always had a feel for progress and for freedom, and the men know it…perhaps their knowing it makes them so lazy.” Kay-K sighed.
“Men know that we will cleanup their mess, so when things get tough ~ men turn to us, but hate to admit they need us.” With that she grabbed my sister’s hand and both of them tromped off to the market to find some exotic foods for dinner.
I look at Thu who shook his head and smiled. “She is a little troublesome…but it is true. Men can either fear and repress women, and watch the world fall apart. Or men can proudly promote women and enjoy their greatness and prosperity.”
As he popped open a couple of beers, Thu settled down underneath the shade of a tree with a newspaper in hand and added, “Me, I’d rather enjoy their greatness.”
From the front page of the paper Thu was reading, the word “Hope” stood out followed by a discussions of two future elections. Elections that may just see a change in the theory of ‘Men in Management.’Myanmar 2015 Presidential Election: Aung San Suu Kyi United States 2016 Presidential Election: Hillary Clinton