Producing Salt and Light in Sri Lanka

September 25, 2013

Sweat glistened on Vithiya´s forehead as she dragged the rake through the ankle-deep water of the saltern pond. Emerging from the pinkish-brown brine was a layer of white crystals. She deposited the crystals into a mound beside her, then slid the flat piece of wood attached to the bottom of the rake back into the pond to dredge for more.

All around her were dozens of laborers, many of them women, toiling in the scorching Sri Lanka heat to harvest salt from the lagoon. One woman transferred a mound of salt into a tub. Another worker, balancing a filled tub on her head, carried the load to a storehouse.

For Vithiya and other harvesters like her, “working in the salt mines” is more than a figure of speech. It is a way of life. In this case, the “mines” are a series of salt pools created when water is pumped out of the lagoon and left to evaporate in the sun over a month-long period. Salt crystals form beneath the water and are collected and processed for sale.

Vithiya begins her work day at 5 a.m. It´s cooler then, but the work is strenuous regardless of the time of day. As a temporary laborer, she works in the saltern when extra harvesters are needed. Her pay if she works a full week is 3,000-5,000 Rupees—about $40.

This mother of seven does what it takes to provide for her family. Her husband is an alcoholic and physically abusive. Since he is unemployed, he sometimes harasses Vithiya for money.

As a child, Vithiya didn´t have the opportunity to go to school. Her family belonged to a Gypsy community and they moved from place to place. Without an education, she had little hope for a steady job.

Now 42, Vithiya is fulfilling her dream of learning to read and write through a women´s literacy program offered by a Christian Aid-assisted ministry. The course is taught in the evenings so the women can work during the day and go to class at night.

“That shows how determined these women are,” said Sarla Mahara, the South Asia director for Christian Aid. “After working 10 or 12 hours a day, they come to class and they study. They are serious about learning.”

The goal of the program extends beyond developing basic literacy skills, however. Unlike a traditional curriculum, this course includes the use of passages from the Bible and other Christian literature as instructional materials. For women like Vithiya, it may be the first time they have heard—and read—the message of God´s love.

The more she read, the more Vithiya came to understand her need for a Savior. After receiving Christ, she stopped her practice of fortune-telling and pick-pocketing. She started going to a church that has been planted in the area and even persuaded her husband to attend with her a few times.

Excited about her new life in Christ, Vithiya shared her testimony with other palm readers and illiterate women in the village. They, too, committed their hearts to the Lord.

Recently Vithiya gave up her physically-exhausting job in the saltern and found work in a laundry business. That position also has irregular hours, however.

Meanwhile, Vithiya continues to take literacy classes and learn all that she can. Already she is feeling more confident. Unscrupulous factory owners sometimes take advantage of illiterate workers. Now Vithiya is able to count her wages at the end of the day and make sure she has not been shortchanged. She can dial numbers on a telephone. And she can help her youngest children occasionally with their homework.

“This ministry gives the women hope that even money can´t bring,” said Mahara. “It gives them more dignity, and the classes provide them with tools to make their lives more meaningful. Most of all, they hear the gospel.”