Garbage Collector, R. M. DHAMMIKA.
I grew up in a thatched hut in Mattakuliya with one brother and two sisters. My father was from India. He died when I was three and my mother worked in homes to feed us. I was a bread winner at ten years. I did a variety of jobs; packing tea, turning animal bones in to manure, building houses – you name it, I did it. My mother put me in to a home as I was impossible to control. I worked there too. I got married at seventeen to a gambler. I worked while he gambled. We were married for five years. He beat me. I bore a child and he took the baby away to be raised by his family. So I left him. I remarried a garbage collector at twenty two and we settled in Nugegoda taking care of a home. When the owners reclaimed it, we were homeless. We relocated to the pavement in front of the Kotte church. We were accused of raising stray animals and were asked to leave by church authorities. I raised hell. The police beat my husband and broke his arm. We had nowhere to go. We went straight to the municipal council and complained. We were given a letter to take to the head of the police against the eviction and the beating. There was one time when we bathed from the nearby public well and sat down to eat. A car came and a man in black glasses got down and tried to kidnap my husband. I was held at gunpoint, but I didn’t allow them to take away my man. I pleaded with them and hung on to him. They accused him of theft. I raised so much noise that people from the nearby and houses came out. When we went to the police, the police asked ‘you really love your man, don’t you?’. I turned around and asked them, ‘doesn’t your wife love you? I am the same.’ They gave me a police report told me to return if problems persist. We stayed there for many years and then shifted close to Pita Kotte.
We’ve been garbage collectors for more than 20 years. I went and spoke to Abans. I asked for a job and told them we were hardworking people. They employed both of us and we worked very well. Abans trained me to do my job well – I am proud of my job and do it right wherever I am. There is severe competition between municipality and company workers and we often have problems related to work politics. I get beaten by co workers of the municipality. I used to be the first to report to work, even before the company officials arrived. But I was told by the municipality workers to report to work after them. After physical intimidations, I now report to work after the company officials arrive.
If I’m asked to sweep a road, I want to finish it within an hour. I’m used to getting beaten for working well. I make people jealous with my efficiency. But I don’t care – my priority is speed and competency. Once, I was asked to strike by the municipality workers if salaries weren’t paid in two days. I refused. I told them that my job is different to yours. I won’t halt work just because I’m not paid in two days. I will continue to work because I know my salary will come someday. Life on the road is good.
We are jolly – we have lesser problems than those who live in houses. We have more freedom living on the road. I’m up even at 1am, keeping an eye out for nearby proprietors. Our social lives are centered on our Kovils. I am Tamil and my partner is Sinhala. There is no difference between Tamils and Sinhalese – the same blood courses through our veins. I speak better Sinhala than Tamil! Our valuables were stolen by a person known to us. But in a way its good as my life was spared. We never recovered from those losses. So now, we just make do with what we have. We have no problems between the two of us. We are all we have. My husband is a good man. We must be there for each other. But often when someone comes to strike me, he’s too scared to intervene. But it’s rare for someone to attack me – I’m a fighter. Survival is hard on day wages. In sun or rain I do my job. We save my husband’s salary and survive on mine. But we must think of the future. We won’t be able to work this hard every day. My desire is to have a small haven for us to live in peace in our old age – that’s all I want.
Compiled by: Sulochana Dissanayake
Photograph by: Dinuka Liyanawatte