Beginnings  Tea Leaf Trust

My story – Yas

Sri Lanka – a top honeymoon destination, and why not? A country of fascinating culture, amazing sights and sounds, wonderfully friendly people, mouth-watering food and beautiful beaches. So we booked it and on the 9th of November 2007 set off for the trip of a lifetime.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that this would change our lives forever.

White flags

Sri Lanka is the home of quality tea and we’re massive tea heads. So, we wanted to see where it was grown, the process, you know, that sort of thing. I was rather taken with all the beautiful pictures of ladies with baskets around their heads, smiling in front of lush green tea fields. It looks so peaceful, serene, cool…and a wonderful place to while away 24 hours after the hot, hot heat of the cultural triangle, north of the island.

The drive up to the plantations was long and on mostly winding roads,  As we climbed, I could see white flags dotted everywhere. I was perplexed. What did these white flags mean? I asked Hasantha, our friend who was showing us around the island. He was blunt.

“They’re not flags, they’re white plastic sacks. And each plastic sacks is tied tightly to the head of a teapicker to collect tea leaves. They have to collect 18 kilos of leaves a day. Yes, 18 kilos a day around… a person’s head”

Horrors of the humble cuppa

Over the next 2 hours, the horrors behind the humble cuppa emerged and our romanticised notion of happy smiling women carrying beautiful woven baskets on their shoulders while nonchalantly picking bright green tea leaves was utterly smashed.

Picking tea is incredibly difficult. Picking tea is often hazardous. Picking tea is mostly thankless. Women leave at dawn to begin their daily slog of picking tea from spikey, scratchy bushes covered in thick spider-webs. Many wear only flip flops to protect their feet from snakes and leeches. In the searing heat, they’re there, picking for 8-10 hours, 6 days a week. In the monsoon weather, they’re there, picking for 8-10 hours, 6 days a week, ahh yes, BUT with the addition of a  bin liner wrapped around them to keep them dry, trying desperately not to slip or get tangled in the wet undergrowth.

Lucky them.

And all for between £1.50-£3.00 a day

And that’s not even the half of it. The British brought the tea pickers across from Tamil Nadu, South India about 160 years ago, promising them a better life from the harsh famine and a caste system that was making their lives unbearable. But things were little better and even in a new country, they were still subject to a societal ‘caste system’,  classed as the lowest of the low.

In terms of the conditions, nothing has changed for these people 160 years on. They live in line-rooms; 8 to 10 people in two rooms, one for general living, the other for sleeping in. Hot water and electricity are available to only a few, the majority sharing outdoor cold water taps and toilet facilities.

What’s more, the social systems that exist in Sri Lanka means that it is nearly impossible for teapicking families to progress, move up in society and leave the tea estates for a better life. If you are a teapicker, you are right at the bottom of the barrel….actually your place is below that barrel. And that’s where your supposed to remain.

The poverty of the tea plantations has given rise to a whole raft of social issues arising from negative coping mechanisms. As there is no way out, many people turn to alcohol and substance abuse for escapism. This gives rise to domestic and sexual abuse of women, which leads many to self-harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.

I live in a country that teaches me to believe I can do anything, achieve anything, but these people know as soon as they are born they are destined to a life of back-breaking manual labour, servitude and abuse. An accident of birth with tragic consequences.

Fighting at the fancy hotel

Hearing all this made me feel pretty sick on top of the travel sickness I was experiencing (winding roads – I hate them!). I felt even worse when we rocked up to our very luxurious hotel set slap bang in the middle of a tea plantation!

Now, as sick as I was feeling, Tim was angry, really angry, and went to have a chat with the hotel manager about what this affluent hotel was doing to help the local tea-picking communities around it. They were, after all, the main reason people came to visit the area.

He was gone for over 2 hours. My travel sickness had gone but had been replaced by panic. Where was he? Two Brits throwing their weight about (that’s what we do, eh?)  wasn’t going to win us any friends here – probably get us thrown right out of the country!

We have to start a school!

At 10.25pm Tim burst in garbling “we have to start a school, we have to move here and start a school!!!”

Who-the-what-the?!! But what about my hot yoga?!! What about my spin class?!!

The manager had explained that one of the few opportunities that young people on the tea estate had to get them off the tea estates was helping out in local hotels, but they had to have English-speaking skills. English-speaking skills were key to getting well-salaried positions in many of the businesses in Sri Lanka.

And there began a night of exciting planning for Tim, trying to convince me we HAD to do this, whilst I tried to sleep. We’d been together less than 2 years, had only just got married, had only just moved in together and now Tim was deciding a future that meant relocation, learning another language and adapting to a culture totally alien to us.

The next morning

At around 6 am as the sun was rising, we put on our shoes and had a walk around the tea fields that surrounded the hotel. It was a Sunday and only a few women were picking as it was a day off for them. We saw a really lovely lady who smiled and said hello. She was so friendly – if I were her I would have turned my back, her suffering a legacy of our heritage. But she said hello and let us have a picture of her.

As we turned the corner I saw a little old man boiling a kettle outside of a room he lived in. It was made of thick plastic black bags.

If we didn’t do something to help, who would?

Tim and I talked and by 10.30 am that day we had decided that we were going to come back and do something. We weren’t sure how, but we were moving to Sri Lanka and we were going to try and help the group of people in Sri Lanka who had been stamped on in the name of British colonialism.

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