Daily Life Series: A Coconut Land Worker in Sri Lanka

Don Justin Haputantri’s Day

Don Justin works on a small coconut land on the North-West Coast of Sri Lanka. His home town is in a very different area of the island – the South. Unlike here, where it is semi-arid and hard to grow anything, he comes from the wet zone, where vegetation thrives. Twenty some years ago Don Justin retired from the army and wanting to supplement his pension and keep himself occupied he decided to go back to his roots of cultivation. He has been on this 20 acre property for the past year. It has been a challenge to live in an area without much water and he admits he has to tend to his vegetable plot even harder, but finds it rewarding that his extra care and attention has brought dividends to his dining table. He has a wife who visits him once a month. She has a small landholding of cinnamon and rubber and is unwilling to leave it and move to the area to be with him. For now, this works. He goes home once a month for around four days. It involves two bus changes and a seven hour journey to his village. If he leaves here at 4am, he can be home in time for lunch! Sometimes, about once in three months, his extended family and friends come to visit him, picnic and stay over for a day or two. They like visiting because it is such a beautiful area – by the lagoon, with plenty of fresh fish, shrimp and crabs available. There is a dry wind that blows most of the year and the climate even if hot is dry – a far cry from what they are used to back home.

Don Justin is 70 years old and prides himself that he is still fit and able to work. He supervises four other workers on the property. Two of the workers are husband and wife, the other worker is a woman friend. They live in the village close by and come daily to work. The fourth worker is a man who lives on the property like Justin but in a separate dwelling a little away from his.

Justin wakes up at 4.30am every day and the first thing he does is to switch his radio on. In these parts, he tells me, silence and solitude can be unnerving. He keeps the radio on all day, whether he is in the house or not. It comforts him to hear some signs of life when he comes towards his house. He doesn’t feel so alone. He then lights his wood fire and fills the kettle with water to make tea, while the kettle takes its time to boil, he washes his face, brushes his teeth, and completes his morning ablutions. He makes his bed, sweeps his house and the compound around it, and gets ready for his day.

By 5.30am he puts a pot of rice to boil in the fire for his breakfast and while it cooks, he goes for a check-up walk around the land, making sure he takes his torch, as it is still dark outside and he has to look out for snakes, scorpions and other creatures. Once he finishes his rounds, he goes back to his cottage, inspects his vegetable garden and sees what he can cook for his breakfast and lunch. One of the boundaries of the property borders the lagoon and a boat dock where fishing boats come in. On some days, he goes down to the lagoon and buys fish for his meals as soon as the boats come in from their catch. But whatever his menu is, he makes sure he has enough for two meals – breakfast and lunch.

At 7.50am the other workers start trickling into the land and he assembles them and gives them their schedule and areas of work. At 8am, while the others go off to conduct their respective duties, he walks back to his cottage and has his breakfast of rice, fish and vegetables. Once done, he washes up and joins the other people at work. He not only supervises but also aids and helps in whatever labor they are currently engaged in – be it mending fences, weeding the tall grass, fertilizing the coconut trees or other such work.
At 10am, he goes back to his cottage, kindles the wood fire once again and puts the kettle on for tea. In fifteen minutes, tea is ready and he and the workers have their drink of tea, a small chat and go back to work by 10.30am.

At 11.30am when the sun is high overhead all the workers come back to rest and Justin has his lunch of rice, fish and vegetables at 12 noon. The other workers have their lunch at the same time too, but they eat separately, having cooked and brought their own lunch from their homes. He rests until 2pm upon which he returns to work. At 4pm he has another little tea break, after which he works for another hour.
At 5pm, Justin clocks off work, and the daily workers return to their homes. When he comes back to his cottage, he waters, weeds and tends to his vegetable plot and sweeps the compound around his house and inside the house till 6pm.

At 6pm, he washes his clothes and has a shower. He lights a lamp in front of the Buddha stature in his house and does a small meditation, after which he cooks his dinner of rice, vegetables and fish. After dinner he will either chat to the other man who lives and works on the property, or listen to religious sermons on the radio. He switches off the radio just before he falls asleep at 9.30pm.

Pictures of Justin at work: Cutting posts for fences.

Justin’s house