The day I turned forty-five, almost exactly double my age since the last birthday I celebrated in Sri Lanka, a bus weaved us along the narrow ridges that lead to Sri Lanka’s hill country. We were volunteering for a week with children of tea plantation workers, about as far off the beaten track as one can get in this little country.
“Village” is too grandiose a descriptor for Amherst Bazaar. Blink at the wrong moment during the vertiginous ride from Nuwara Eliya and you miss it. The village’s “commercial district” is maybe a hundred and fifty feet end to end: there’s the hardware store above which we rented two spare bedrooms, a couple box-like shops, and the notorious “wine store” where most of the town’s male residents gather each day from 11 am until they find their way home. And then there’s tiny St. Andrew’s Church, run by the visionary young pastor Rev. Luke John, our host for the week. What we didn’t know when we decided to come here was that within the walls of his church, a quiet revolution is simmering.
The word “serendipity” comes from an ancient name for Sri Lanka (from Tamil Ceralamdivu, Sanskrit Sinhaladvipa, and Persian Sarandīp), and our arrival at Amherst Bazaar was completely serendipitous: an old grad school colleague of mine whom I hadn’t been in touch with for sixteen years manages a number of church-based social services programs across the country. When he heard that we were looking to volunteer, he pointed us straight to Luke.
A few years ago, the two-centuries-old Church of the American Ceylon Mission sent Luke to Amherst Bazaar to scope out the possibility of starting a project to assist families of Tamil tea workers. Luke is the closest thing to a true liberation theologian, and a revolutionary, I’ve ever met. He didn’t set up focus groups. He didn’t convene meetings with politicians. Instead, on their first day, Luke and his wife Jenna, complete outsiders to the town, brought a ball to a small dirt-patch of field and started throwing it around. By the end of the afternoon, two kids from the plantations were playing with them. By the end of the month, there were thirty. By the end of twelve, children from seventy village families were joining them every day, including holidays. Everyone had come to know that hanging with “the Father” was the safest thing their children could do.
At the beginning of the next year, Luke said to them, “Hey, we’re having so much fun playing, why don’t we study together too.” And that’s how the preschool and primary and secondary after-school programs were born. In a district where the local government schools are impoverished and overcrowded, where failure rates had been extraordinarily high, the afterschool program is providing the individualized instruction the kids need to pass Sri Lanka’s all-important exams. More than fifty of the afterschool students have now successfully passed their O levels. St. Andrews Church school is completely ecumenical—children come from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and a few Buddhist families—and there’s no proselytizing. For teachers, Luke sought out a similarly diverse group, promising, untrained graduates, residents of the local communities, unjaded from work in the local government schools. What they had in common was an interest in getting teaching experience and a commitment to social work.
When Luke suddenly needed a physical space for the school and the community, he built St. Andrew’s Church by hand: just a few hundred square feet of enclosed space with corrugated aluminum sheeting for the roof and walls.
His first move was to bring in local Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim leaders to speak as guests of honor at the church. They were soon his most vocal supporters.
On our first full day at St. Andrew’s preschool, we taught the American classics. Emily delivered such an impressive rendition of Wheels on the Bus that the kids wouldn’t stop asking for more. We read picture books and taught them Itsy Bitsy Spider and the Hokey Pokey. “Again,” the kids said. And then again.
At the end of the afterschool English classes, the older students wanted us to sing English songs. We asked them to teach us some Tamil pop songs first. Then Miles, Jonah, and I taught them This Train Is Bound for Glory, and a Sri Lankan version we composed based on Woody Guthrie’s classic:
This land is your land, this land is my land / From Nuwara Eliya to Batticaloa / From Singharaja Forest to Trincomalee-ee-ee / This land is made for you and me.
The kids asked for more, so we continued to play, Miles picking away on mando, Jonah fiddling faster and faster. Luke brought out his keyboard and started laying down crazy compound 6:8 rhythms underneath our music, and all of a sudden we were playing South Indian bluegrass together, seventy-five children dancing and clapping.
“What we’re actually trying to teach,” Luke told us later, “is that this is not their land. We want to give them the education they need to grow up and leave. We want them to have the confidence to choose what to do with their lives. This is how the revolution will happen.”
There were two public holidays during our stay. (Sri Lanka has long prided itself on the fact that it has more public holidays than just about any other country.) On school holidays, even more kids come to the church—to play, rather than study. We taught them kickball, and Red Light Green Light, and Duck Duck Goose. And they taught us the intricacies of cricket. Even the school’s sole Muslim teacher, got into the game. It was the first time she’d ever played in public, she said, but she’d grown up playing at home with her four brothers—and she was good! She clubbed the ball and ran like a maniac, laughing the whole time, head scarf falling down around her neck.
In the context of Sri Lankan history, Luke’s goals for Amherst Bazaar are revolutionary—and long overdue. Two hundred years ago, the British empire, with its bottomless appetite for good tea and commercial opportunity, decided to rip out the coffee that had populated Sri Lanka’s hills and replace it with high-grade tea. The only problem was that the native Sinhala and Tamil population had no interest in performing the brutal labor that tea plantations required at the low rates the colonists were willing to pay. So the British imported thousands of Tamils from South India to work in the new tea plantations.
Nearly all of today’s Sri Lankan plantation workers—a million people—are the direct descendants of those Indian Tamils. The tea pickers are exclusively women. At Amherst Bazaar they earn 650 Sri Lankan rupees per day (roughly US$4.60), working from 7:30 am – 5 pm, when the sun begins to set, but only if they meet their daily picking quota of eighteen-plus kilos, a minimum of twenty-two days per month. This is just a fraction of the national minimum wage, but the plantation owners tell the government that if they pay their workers more, they’ll go out of business, so the government turns a blind eye. And yet, Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea in the world—with a market value of nearly US$2 billion. The women get home by 5:30 each afternoon. They wash and clean their kids, then themselves. They scrub the family’s clothes, cook dinner, clean up, and get to sleep around ten, then wake at four the following day and start all over.
The factory workers and field hands are men. They earn the same wages as the women, but finish by 11 am. At the end of each month, the men collect their paychecks, along with those of their wives—it’s considered dishonorable for wives to collect their own checks. On average, we were told, 25-50% of the men’s paychecks then goes to pay down their tab at the Amherst Bazaar wine store. (The store is one of more than twenty owned by a former government minister—needless to say, he’s doing quite well financially.)
This past year, during a holiday period, Luke loaded seventy-five families on buses and drove them ten hours up to Jaffna, the former Tamil capital, in the far north of the country—Jaffna was ripped apart by Sri Lanka’s civil war, but the roads and railway line recently reopened. None of the school’s children had ever traveled past Nuwara Eliya, twenty-eight kilometers from their homes in Amherst Bazaar. None of them had ever seen the ocean. Sri Lanka is an island. As soon as they saw the beach, Luke told us, the children ran straight into the sea. “Where is the end?” a couple kids asked, pointing to the horizon. “Where’s the border?” “This is the ocean,” Luke told them. “There is no border.” The metaphor was obvious. Like a gut-punch.
Emily and I spoke with Luke about the Fair Trade movement, and about worker-owned cooperatives. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “But it’s where we need to be. Six hundred and fifty rupees is not enough,” we heard him say again and again, “It’s not enough to live.” In August, Luke will come to the States for two years of grad school at a seminary in St. Louis. We’re looking forward to hosting him and to continuing the conversation.
Each night during our stay a different teacher hiked up into the plantations with us and led us to her house for snacks or dinner. Vistas from the narrow trails are stunning, endless rows of tea plants rolling down the hills like a verdant carpet. The teachers come from plantation families too. Their homes are typical “line houses,” a series of linear apartments in concrete barracks, consisting of one to two tiny rooms each for families of five to twelve people. Most have no running water, no refrigeration, no electric stoves. The adults in the area drink tea half a dozen times a day—from the same leaves they labor to pick. They mix in so much sugar it was sometimes hard for us (Miles excluded) to get it down. Luke tells them that as they enjoy a cup, they should also taste the tea’s bitterness. The way the Jews eat bitter herbs, he says—to remind them of the time when they were slaves.
A group of school children asked to join one of our evening treks. As the sun sank into the horizon and we padded along the serpentine ridges, the kids swarmed around us, gleefully singing Tamil songs, jostling to grab hold of our hands, to be the ones to lead us. Those who didn’t get a hand held firmly onto those who did—a chain of children attached to and trailing behind us. As we hiked into the hills, they tried out the English vocabulary they’d learned with us earlier in the day. The boy hanging from my left hand pointed to a rhododendron just starting to bloom. “This is white, Teacher,” he said. The child to my left pointed to another flower. “This is purple color.” They picked some thickly-skinned, dark green fruit and shared it with us: “This is orange fruit.” (It was the sourest, most mouth-pucker-inducing orange we’d ever tasted.)
“This is moon,” said one child, pointing high above the next mountain where a million tea plants disappeared into the night. Impossibly pink bands of clouds spiraled out across a darkening turquoise sky. The air was crisp and fragrant.
“This is beauty,” said a wide-eyed little girl, the smallest of the bunch. She was right.