It’s late afternoon and my neighbours, Prabha and Pulo, stop and, following convention, ask: ‘Cooked your evening meal yet?’ And while I reply, asking them the same question, the history hiding behind the conventional greeting suddenly strikes me: checking if we need to send a bowl of food across for a friend’s children when mealtime comes.
Prabha says: ‘About time you came with us again, when we go cut grass! You won’t believe the change.’
‘Tomorrow,’ I reply, laughing.
So, next morning at dawn, after criss-crossing through the village and walking along a little path between some new but ramshackle factories of nondescript sorts, we begin to climb into the foothills of the nearby mountain, over rocks and around thorn and aloe trees. No sign of good grass anywhere. It’s already been cut.
All five of us dressed in gumboots, long-discarded men’s trousers under faded calf-length cotton skirts, long-sleeved shirts, long brightly coloured cotton scarves over shoulder and across to hip with a plastic water bottle tied in. Each with a sickle over a shoulder. Prabha’s scruffy brown dog tags along.
After an hour’s walk, chatting about the whole world and everything else, we reach a place where there are still grasses, creepers and other weeds that cows and goats love.
Prabha only keeps two goats now, in the stable next to her house. Finding grass for the three cows she used to keep isn’t possible anymore. Most cow-keepers have given up. Pulo keeps one calf at a time now, for the same reason. These women in their 40’s and 50’s have been fetching grass every day since they were 12. This work has been their insurance against the hardship of unemployment whenever it has struck.
There were always problems in daily grass fetching. Getting up the day after childbirth to fetch grass. Setting out in a cyclone to fetch grass. Periodic drought. Sugar estate bosses laying charges against you for stealing grass from their land.
Now, the very grass has been disappearing fast. Cane planted in every spare corner. Villages spreading out as the population increases. Motorways and factories and stone-crushers taking up land. Golf courses being laid like carpets on grasslands. So Prabha and Pulo have to go further and further away, for less and less grass.
All five of us cut away with our sickles, climbing up on rocks for the high bits. Each one piles grass up for the bundle she’ll carry home. I, the unskilled, contribute a bit to each bundle. When we’re done, we lie back, laughing and talking as we drink our water to the last drop. I pour some into my hand for Prabha’s dog.
‘I’ll help lift the others’ bundles of grass, Lindsey,’ Prabha says, ‘then you help me get under mine.’ Hers is famously the biggest. Over six feet long, all wound up, weighing 50 pounds. She places it at an angle to the ground to get under it. She reminds me how to lift the long end, to get it above the circle of cloth on her head, and then lower it, to avoid injuring her neck.
‘God knows where we’ll have to climb to next year!’
‘My husband is being laid off by the sugar estate. Just when the shirt factory my daughter works at has closed down.’ The dog runs ahead.
And somehow we all go quiet as we walk, homeward bound, four of them under huge bundles, me with just my sickle on my shoulder. Hard times are returning. Each family that had four workers now has perhaps three. Two of them in dodgy employment. The sugar estate owners announce they will get rid of all their workers, rely on seasonal labour. There is no massive agricultural diversification, the obvious way to create jobs, nor any land reform. The textile industry is crumbling under new WTO rules. Signs of the crisis being systemic are everywhere now.
My four neighbours know that masses of women won’t be able to turn to this semi-peasantry ever again to escape poverty.
The phrase ‘Cooked your evening meal yet?’ comes back to me. We’ll soon be asking this in earnest again. So we know whether to send across a bowl of food for the neighbour’s children.