“I say, let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
No doubt millions of people on earth would agree with those words. It is for this reason that the small picturesque town of Srimangal is an important part of this book. It is located about 190 km from Dhaka and is renown for being the tea production centre of Bangladesh.
The hilly region around Srimangal is very picturesque, and is home to many tea, pineapple and rubber plantations. The best time to take a walk and explore the area for photography is during the early morning, before the mist has lifted and while the gardens are still shrouded with a mystical look.
There are about 150 tea plantations, covering around 41,000 hectares. They produce large volumes of the highest quality tea in the world. It is for this reason the region is named ‘The tea capital of Bangladesh’.
I met my guide Eusuf at Srimangal, it was he who took care of me over the following weeks, until my departure from Bangladesh. We visited a restaurant and got to know each other over a meal of rice and a deadly piquant curry. Whilst eating we drew up a plan of action for the first few days. We scheduled visits to several tea plantations, to villages where tea workers live and to villages where local tribes lived - not all tribes are employed in the tea industry. We also planned travels to a region near the Indian border, to Lake Madhabpur and a few other interesting locations.
We later chatted about the production of tea, during which I learned the following:
1) Plucking – The season for gathering of tea leaves lasts 8 months. Workers, who are mainly women, work from early morning until late at night, picking the small buds and first two or three young leaves from the tea bush. They work seven days a week.
2) Appraisal, weighing and transportation - During a working day, the tea pickers usually fill several large, specially designed bags, which hold between 20 and 30 kg. At certain times of the day, the women deliver their bundles to a company representative who quickly examines the leaves, weighs them and records the data in a notebook. The women then deliver their bundles for loading onto trucks which transport the tea leaves to the processing factories.
3) Factory Processing – here, the tea leaves go through a process of selection, drying, oxygenating and other treatments. In general, every 100 kg of fresh leaves yields around 22 to 25 kg of processed tea. I wanted to visit a processing factory, but was told I would be allowed to watch, but not to take pictures. It was unclear whether this was because of professional or trade secrets, or to avoid troubles related to the working conditions in these factories. I suspect that both may have been true.
4) Export – Half of the manufactured tea is consumed within the home country, and the rest is exported abroad.
People employed in tea industry are not well paid. Statistically there are about 300 000, of which 75% are women. The long working day with its paltry US$ 0,50 cent per day, sentences these women to a cheerless life. Very often, the money they earn is not even sufficient for them to buy tea. Some owners said that some homeless workers are provided with accommodation in specially built villages, and that schools for the children are provided and even medical attention given. But from any point of view, half a dollar per day is half a dollar and is very little money. Despite their circumstances these women are constantly smiling, teasing and chatting merrily with each other, the cheery atmosphere did not correspond at all to the reality of their sad daily lives. I love my daily cups of tea and whenever I reach for a cup, images of their smiling faces come flooding back to me.