Theology from the Margins: A Cry from the Tea Bushes
By Jerome Sahabandhu*
Imagine that you are in the most beautiful island on the planet—Sri Lanka—a nation that has a long history and rich cultures, but one that has been devastated by ethnic war for three decades and is now recovering as a reconciled nation. Sri Lanka became an independent nation state in 1948, following autonomy for India, its northern neighbor. The first European power to exercise its influence on Sri Lanka was Portugal in 1505. In 1658, the Dutch displaced the Portuguese from Sri Lanka, and were in turn displaced by the British in 1796. In 1815, the British took possession of the whole island and governed until its independence.
Currently, about 22 million people live in Sri Lanka. Reconstruction, peace, harmony, and coexistence are the words of the people’s rediscovered vocabulary. Sri Lanka is famous for its scenic natural beauty—flora, fauna, mountains, reservoirs, temples, beaches—and for its religiosity and hospitality. It’s cultural diversity and ancient histories have amazed generations of both admirers and explorers.
The Rev. Devadasan Sengan picks tea in the Nuwara Eliya region. He grew up in an estate community and is now a Methodist minister working for the Estate Communities Empowerment Mission, established in 2012 by the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka (ECEM).
PHOTO: ESTATE COMMUNITIES EMPOWERMENT MISSION
Perhaps Ceylon tea is Sri Lanka’s most famous icon of all; a variety that has magnetically attracted communities of tea drinkers around the globe, including fans in the United States. In fact, the British used the name “Ceylon” to refer to the country of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is also a country of living world faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Theravada Buddhists are the majority. None could easily bypass the almost religious fervor with which Sri Lankans play and watch the sport of cricket, and Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate (92.6 percent) is another point of pride. Yet in the midst of this, the moment a sojourner crosses borders to the margins in Sri Lanka, she can hear a story of one of the most oppressed, yet resilient, communities on Earth: the estate community. This is a missional invitation to hear the story of the women and men behind your cup of tea.
Tea Bushes Cry With You
Sellamma is a mother of five children who lives in the estate slums of Nuwara Eliya. Two of her children attend a nearby government school and the other three stay at home. She begins her day around 4.30 a.m. preparing Roti, a bread, and Sambal, a chili sauce, for her children and disabled husband before she leaves to pick tea leaves on the estate. She works 12 to 14 hours a day for only 350 rupees, which is less than $2.50 in US dollars. To receive this payment, Sellamma must pick 15 kilograms (approximately 7 pounds) of tiny tea leaves in a day. A cup of tea at a café in the city of Atlanta costs about $3.00 US.
Sellamma’s daughter, Selvi, was in 7th grade when she wrote this poem for her teacher:
All About My Mother
Amma, Amma you are great,
May Lord Shiva give you shakthi (strength)
I always wonder at and admire your tears
Do not worry, tea bushes cry with you
You love them, they hear your cry
and share your tears
Nandri (thank you) tea bushes for your tears
Sharing with my Amma
Selvi’s poetic words disturb us, but here emerges “a cry from tea bushes”—a theology and mission from the margins. This is an invitation to listen, with theological humility, to the voice and struggles, hopes and dreams of plantation/estate communities in Sri Lanka, the most marginalized communities on this island nation. They are hard working women and child laborers at the very bottom of the estate social pyramid, the margins outside the margins.
Tea-leaf pickers in Sri Lanka.PHOTO: ESTATE COMMUNITIES EMPOWERMENT MISSION
The estate community’s historic roots trace back to India. Tea pickers were brought to Sri Lanka as bonded laborers by British colonists to work on coffee and tea plantations during the 19th century. While coffee failed in Sri Lanka, the tea industry has evolved into a successful million-dollar business today. The people who work on the estates speak Tamil, are of South Indian origin, and represent about five percent of the Sri Lankan population. Socio-analytically speaking, we could borrow a term from India and call them “Sri Lankan Dalits,” a people at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy. This vibrant yet most oppressed community has lived on these plantations to the present day, keeping their distinct culture alive while playing a significant part in the Sri Lankan economy. Their dislocated existence and their cry for dignity is mostly unknown and unheard. The tears of their lamentations are the tears of pain, hurt, weariness, and struggle. But they are also the tears for survival, dignity, love, and justice. This is the “Cry from the Tea Bushes,” a bitter truth resulting from colonial commerce and trade. Their fight for compensation and reparation has not yet been successful.
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