To the workers of the Coir factory, Hikkaduwa
It took us a while to find the Coir factory…but that’s ok, I’ve got used to detours here and now call them ‘unexpected small adventures’. I’ve learnt it’s best to try let go of expectations even if this occasionally means not reaching the place you had planned to go. But today, we got there….eventually.
We – fellow artist Kathy and I – had left the hotel in haste, in a blur of whatsapps and phone calls and conversations I’d not been part of. Our lovely tuk tuk driver was under remote instructions from his cousin Sudu, and almost took us to a coconut oil, not coconut weaving, factory but we managed to persuade him to turn around just before we were completely left Hikkaduwa and made tracks for Colombo. A few more calls to Sudu, some very bad Sinahla on our part, and half a dozen pointers for directions from locals later, we arrived.
Arriving, you could see how you could miss it. The factory was down the end of a small dirt track, at the back of several houses and, from the riverside, almost completely camouflaged by trees.
With no guide, and extremely limited Sinhala, we walked slowly with trepidation down the path. This was a working factory, not a tourist site – it’s not on trip advisor – I checked.
The factory, or operation, was housed in a series of big open sheds, though some of the work also happened outside the shelter. While ‘open’, we were unsure if it were ok we were there. It is not a common situation I’ve come across; an open factory. I think in the UK, in an equivalent situation there would be a mood of suspicion around our attempted entrance. I can just imagine arriving at the Amazon distribution centre in say, Derbyshire, and in no English, but smiles and hello, thank you and please, being silently granted permission to enter, wander around and communicate with the people working there, and with their permission, take a few photographs. I doubt you would get past the car park before a security guard told you to get lost – or ‘email the management, arrange a day, a time, a guide’. But here, things seem more relaxed. Maybe, in this scenario being a woman, a tourist woman, helps; perhaps we pose no threat. Still, I’m aware it’s people’s workplace and I don’t want to be a bother.
But instead of suspicion, our curious faces were met with smiles and demonstrations of the process or machinery we were pondering. It is possible that they thought we were crazy- coming to see a factory when about 200 metres away was a beautiful tourist filled beach with clear blue water and the only sign of a coconut was cut open with a straw poking out the top being drunk under an umbrella at a beach side bar…
We walked a little in and spotted an older man, seated – possibly the foreman or the owner – it wasn’t clear. His bare chest and sarong indicated to me he wasn’t doing the heavy lifting- but I could have been wrong. He was the only person in the place not seeming to be engaged in an obvious activity or process, so we went to see if it was ok we were there and to have a look around. He agreed and so began our sticky beak in earnest.
The reason we came was because Kathy and I are both interested in the weaving process. We had previously visited a cotton weaving mill together. While coconut and not cotton, the process here wasn’t a million miles away, though today was a lot less colourful. An array of different processes were being worked using a series of older looking but innovative and efficient machines that formed an extension to the skilled work of the workers whose hands and bodies worked with each machine with the precision and gusto of a musician at her instrument.
The first process and by extension, person to strike me about the place was a woman with a long grey plait and green shirt who hunched over coconut shells and ripped them into quarters, removing the long husks of hair first. It took me to a documentary of First Nations peoples of Canada returning from a beaver hunt, where the frozen beaver fur was smoothly and expertly ripped from the rest of the body; creating a real ripping sound. Focusing in on the husks, and then to the tearing out the excess inside, she showed incredible strength and efficiency fast all while maintaining the stature of a great aunt. I fingered through my phrasebook and searched for ‘hard work’ wanting to show my ‘impressedness’. I didn’t find it but instead settled on hard- as in ‘difficult’ and said it with an upward questioning inflection and a simultaneous flexing of my right arm muscles. ‘No’ she said with a smile. I know it would be for me- years of Darcy Bussel Pilates videos wouldn’t have prepared me for this hard yakka, as we say back home.
This ripping task she performed in front of two mountains of coconuts. The ones to the back were older, greyer and drier than the greener, glossier ones to the front. Later looking at a photo on my phone, without a context to give it scale, the pile looked like an upsized mound of pistachio nutshells. In actuality, the pile reach up a few metres, tipping the bottom of tree branches.
Moving away from this woman, we went toward a machine that lay dormant- checking in with the woman and the foreman it was ok to do so as we did so. We looked at it frowning, trying to figure out its purpose and mode of operation. The man got up from his seat and slowly walked toward us, placing some quartered husks into the conveyer belt. He then turned on the on switch and Kathy and I watched as the shells vibrated towards, and in to a series of mechanical metal teeth which squished these green boats into bits and went into a wooden sideways drum, bursting out the other end.
The burst out bits of the coconut seemed to be used for two different processes. The pulp of the nuts was swept into a huge mound- taller than the woman tending to it. Piled two metres high it appeared like a lumpy, brown knobbly Munroe – or a hairy creature who settled down for a nap a few thousand years ago….
As we wander around, it doesn’t take long for the wisps of the husks to start making their way in through your nostrils and onto your clothes. It’s the fineness of pollen without the sweet smell, it’s dusty, of course, the smell of ropes in a hardware store. I begin to wonder if the women who work here can smell it, or if the material itself has clogged up their nasal passages so much, they no longer can. It gets into my eyes too. Later in the day I find myself scratching my skin on my exposed arms and rubbing my dry eyes. And that\’s me after less than an hour there. I dread to think the effect it’s having on these workers, breathing it in every day.
The woman who stands beside the Munroe of bits, wears a Germany t-shirt and a big toothy smile. The job we see her perform is scooping the bits into an enormous wire drum, big enough to fit 4 people lying down. It rotates slowly over her head like the inside of a tumble dryer. It acts as a large sieve, separating the clumps, capturing large bits of dirt and letting the mulch through.
To the right of her is an incredibly elegant woman who manages to look so even doing this difficult job. She reminds me of an older Audrey Hepburn who, in her sixties and away from the movies, was a peace ambassador for the UN. In the video footage I recall, she is in a small village in a rural part of Africa, surrounded by children. She isn’t glamorous- no make-up, no special clothes or Ferragamo shoes- but the way she holds herself, like a ballerina, her grey hair in a chignon and broad smile with sparkling eyes. Here, in this Coya factory in Hikkaduwa, I think is a woman not dissimilar in such grace. This woman’s role is to feed the machine before her with the soft husks that the other woman had previously ripped from their shells. I notice her pace: constant, measured, necessarily slow. This is a person who knows her tool and how much to give it and in what intervals. I imagine a novice could easily clog it or worse, hurt their hand. She invites Kathy and I to peer through the small funnel which leads to a large slotted wooden drum leaking water. It’s tricky to see and by extension, work out exactly what is happening, but putting two and two together, we find the husks are being washed. Later, before we leave, I observe this woman and the lady in the green shirt, carrying large loads of wet husks on sheets to the large flat area outside the shed. The piles remind me of hair swept up into mounds on the hairdressers cutting floor.
Further into the factory, is the noisiest section and the only male worker, beside the foreman. These are the machines that turn the dried husk into soft thick spirals, and then into the much thinner, rougher, twine. We watch as he places the husks onto the conveyer belt, layering and bedding it down as he goes. The threads come out the other side of the machine and with the assistance of a spinning drum at the end, are spun into a long sausage. The man knows the timing and is quick to cut the coya as the drum fills up. He loops the coil over his arm and takes it to the next machine where he feeds it once more and it appears as twine out the other side.
Unless we have missed the obvious, we see the final step in the coya journey. Standing beside a former tumble dryer, now a metal drum possibly used for parts, a woman threads what appears as a hexagonal loom and loops the twine into bundles. We go over and speak to her. She has a little English and seems wanting to talk. Later, she lifts up her hand revealing only two fingers, explaining to us by pointing and gestures that she had lost the rest here, in one of the machines. Kathy and I look at her in horror, empathy and shaking of our heads. My suspicions the work is dangerous has come to full fruition.
We make our way to leave and go back around the factory, making sure to catch each worker in the eye, and hands together, give a smile, bow of the head, ‘istuti’ and an ‘Aboyen’- small thanks for letting us enter their world so openly, but right now it’s the best we can do.