} Lalith Abeysinghe: Thilakalatha… A testimony

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thilakalatha… A testimony


A testimony

It was one day in March 2010. I went to Bibile with Ranjith Kondadeniya, a staff member of MONLAR, for a meeting with some of the farmers who practice eco farming. The meeting was conducted at the Nagala Temple, in Bibile. There were about 30 farmers, all women. At the meeting everybody talked, answered questions, and interacted well. One lady around 40 years of age, answered almost all questions, always adds something to others answers, and always interacted with a smile, and caught the attention of the others too. Her name is Thilakalatha. After the meeting I wanted to visit some of the gardens of the participants. Thilakalatha volunteered to come with us. She accompanied us to many gardens in the village, locates in an interior area called Palliyadda. It is a very hot, dry area, with very little water sources. The farmers cultivate with the rain water and there is no irrigated water for farming, thus the main agriculture is seasonal. The farmers have suffered a lot and their cultivations were destroyed by the drought prevailed in the area for the last 2-3 years. The rains too come untimely and destroy the cultivation. There are damages from the wild animals too. Most of the farmers in the area involve in mono agriculture, with high chemical inputs.

Thilakalatha is the selected Farmer Field Facilitator of SARD program for the area. Hence she knew all the farmers who follow eco farming. After visiting all the gardens she invited us to visit her house, usually to offer something to eat and drink. We were offered with two ‘big’ glasses of fresh orange juice, made out of fruit plucked instantly from the tree. We emptied them in no time! At the outset we feel that this is a different garden. I was curious to ask how all it happened.

“We are traditional farmers. My parents and my husband’s parents were farmers. So we have land. But the lands are unfertile. We use to grow vegetable and paddy. We had to do this with rain. We cultivate only one variety. We thought that it was easy to sell. Some people come from the town and buy the whole lot. As we cannot keep them we give them for what ever price they say. We knew that the prices were very low, but we couldn’t do any thing. Some time the price become very low for certain varieties. Once we get the money, we can not use them all for our needs. We had to borrow money to do farming and we first had to settle those loans. This is the common situation for all the farmers here”.

How did you cultivate this land? “One day Ranjith sir came and asked me whether I like to do farming in a ‘different way’. As he explained it, I had no interest and in fact I did something on those lines earlier, but they were not successful. So I was not interested. After some time Dr Weerakoon phoned me and he visited our house. Then slowly I developed an interest in eco farming. I attended some of the training programs. Some time Ranjith sir come and advised us. To tell you, we have changed a lot since then”.

What sort of changes? “Everything, it changed everything! Look at my garden sir! There are easily more than one hundred varieties. We have vegetable, leafy vegetable, fruits, grain, ala (different verities of indigenous potatoes), medicinal plants, flowers and you name it sir, it will be there! We never go to the boutique to buy foodstuffs now, except for salt and sugar. Every day we go to the garden, pluck something and cook. We also changed our food patterns. We never eat rice for all the days in the week. We eat rice, maize, kurakkan and various other things. We changed the farming system altogether. Earlier we used lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Only after the training and awareness programs conducted by SARD, we realize the danger of them. We are now aware of the effects of using the chemical fertilizers and the harm it does to the health of the consumers, to the soil and to the environment. We spent lots of money earlier to buy the fertilizer and pesticides”.

How did you increase the varieties in the garden? “Firstly it is because of the training and awareness created by SARD. They were the ones who told us about the advantageous of mixed cropping. At the beginning we did not think of this. We didn’t believe that it gives lots of benefits. We slowly multiply the verities. Where ever we go we bring some seeds and multiply them. When we come for the meetings and trainings at SARD, we bring what ever seeds we have and share with others, but in small quantities. Some time we bring only ten-twenty seeds. We have developed a habit to collect, multiply and to share seeds, plants with others. We never did that earlier. We used to buy seeds from the outlet in the town. Now in our gardens, every day we have some thing to cook for our meals, and something to sell if we want. So we can get income every day or every other day. Earlier we get income once in two months. We get some money. But we have settle loans with that money. We used to borrow money for living during the two months. We had to buy everything from the boutique. As soon as we get money as we have to settle the loans and we left with nothing. Some time we give our vegetable at very low prices as the price of the particular variety gone down. Today it is not the case. Even the price of one variety goes down; we do not depend on that alone. We have other varieties too.”

What sort of benefits you get? “Look at my garden. I can get at least 20 varieties even now from the garden. One day, somebody has told the Public Health Inspector (PHI) about my garden. Though his office situated far away, he came to our garden. He was very happy to see my garden. I saw that he liked the method of using liquid fertilizer and compost. So I gave him a bottle of liquid fertilizer and a big bag full of compost. He took them with him. He came again with a doctor. That day two of my daughters were at home. The Doctor and the PHI talked to my daughter. They want my daughters to come to their office to tell our story to the others. My younger daughter is only 12 years old and in grade 07. They are very healthy. We do not have a problem of malnutrition, but may be over nutrition”, and she laughed loudly. It is amazing; she used to laugh after every two words!

Do you have an income from this garden? “I tell you one thing sir, just to understand this. We have lots of things and we can not finish them by eating only. So one day I made some baskets from some leafs of trees. I made four such bags and filled them with vegetables. I gave this to my daughter and ask her to give them to their teachers for fifty rupees each. You know sir; they bought them at one hundred rupees. They know that I cultivate these vegetables with out using chemicals. Now there is a great demand. My daughter use to take some new and first plucked vegetables and fruits to her teachers but she doesn’t take money for them. When ever I go out I take some of these things, fruits and give to my friends. When I come for meetings at SARD I bring seeds to share with others, and Oranges, Nelli (a famous medicinal fruit) and some rare vegetables to give to others. I never take money for those. I give lots of things to my neighbors too. I see when my daughter walking and working on the garden she used to pluck something and eat. I am happy to see that also and I have no fear as those do not have any poison on it. Earlier we were very scared, when they were very small. We used always to keep an eye on them. Because some time we used to spread pesticides. It was also a problem of storing them and keeping them at home. For the last three years we did not have such fear. I don’t know whether I have answered your question sir, money is not everything for us sir. It is only a part. We earn lots of things in health, happiness; we as a family are very happy sir”.

How is your family members help? “It is another story sir. The whole family works on this. We really enjoy this work. My husband, my two daughters always keep our garden up. But only I go for training programs. I learned them and share with my family and with neighbors. In the morning and afternoon we eat at different times. But every day we eat dinner together. We sit on the mat and we share our meals from our plates with each other. We used to chat for a while after dinner. We do this every day. We cracked a joke, share some thing I learned, share some experiences with the experiments we did with eco farming, discussing a way to arrest a problem, we are a happy family. We are not rich in terms of money, furniture or house. We do not have a refrigerator; rather we do not want it. We don’t have a television. We have only a small radio. We don’t have a proper house. But we are happy. We spent our money to educate our children. I deposit the money I get from the teachers in my daughters name in the Bank. Last month I deposited Rs 1500. I know you don’t believe this story. Let me show you a diary maintain by my youngest daughter. This is the diary she wrote last year, 2009. She has written it every day. You can just read some of the pages”. I just went through some of the pages of the diary. It is a small diary. Most of the things that Thilakalatha said were there.

There were some ten- fifteen bags of paddy in her house. The house has no doors. They are wide open. We greeted her husband and prepared to leave the house. She and her daughter came with us to see us off. As soon as we step out of her house, a heavy bag full of Oranges. Lime, Nelli and what not, gave to me. “Take this with you sir, this is for your family” I said, no. She said OK sir! Because, I used to go to these villages very often and as a principle I do not accept such things. This is mainly because that these villagers never accept money and I know that their main livelihood too. When we come to the gravel road from the foot path, I saw her husband also leaving the house to go somewhere. I was really puzzled. How can you leave your house in this way? No body is there now. But there is paddy, other valuables, too. Your house has no doors also? She laughed loudly. “No body will steal from our house sir. We used to give lots of things to people. So they will not steal, rather they will look after them, till we come if they happened to come to our house when we are not there”

I felt, eco farming is not just cultivating something with out using chemical fertilizer and pesticides. It is a way of life, with a vision and some extraordinary values. They share their means of livelihood with others, though they ‘rated’ as poor. The simplicity, the depth that these people have with them is an exemplary way of life, which too should be replicated.

She and her daughter came to my car and greeted and say drive carefully sir, as I had to drive some hundred miles, through lonely area and it was becoming dark. I came home around ten o’clock in the night. When I got off the car, I saw the bag, filled with oranges, lime, Nelli and Lemon on the back seat!

I was struggling to put a title for this piece of writing.

The fitting title is, “Thilakalatha”, as she and her family represent the whole set of values which are supposed to embody with the eco farming. If one ask me to give another name for ‘eco farming’, I say “Thilakalatha”.

Lalith Abeysinghe.

28 March 2010.

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