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The True Cost of Tea (Issue 26)

By Amanda (NZCMS Mission Partner in South Asia)

‘Fair trade’ tea. I’d heard of it, and even occasionally bought it in an attempt to buy more ethically. But it was my visit last September to a region famous for its tea gardens that truly challenged how I use my buying power. I was with a team trying to respond to the needs of the community who live and work on a tea estate. They had witnessed the death of a young baby from malnutrition and had decided to conduct a malnutrition workshop for preschool workers.

I listened to the doctor teach in a concrete hall alongside 30 or so women. Up on the screen were slides of malnourished bodies, horrifying statistics and comparison formulas for degrees of severity. OK but surely this is a problem that occurs in famine stricken regions, not here in a lush garden of tea leaves among hard-working tea pickers…?!

Being a good teacher, the doctor turned to practical demonstrations. Our hall had open sides out onto the street where people were milling about in the mid-day warmth. A few kids were recruited from the pathway outside to participate and before I knew it we were brandishing tape measures and asking them to step onto scales.

Do you know what it feels like to wrap a tape measure around an all-too-skinny little arm and smile at the sweet face looking up at you as you calculate the severity of her malnutrition? I wondered how it feels to be her mother.

Of the small number of kids that were called in off the street, several were ‘grade 2 or 3’ malnourished. They will have already lost some brain function that will never recover, even if given all they need from now on. As I learned more, I heard that 7000 families live on that tea estate alone, and that there are many tea estates in that part of the country. Their rates of malnutrition are some of the worst in the world.

I wandered outside after the workshop and found some women talking. “Can you afford an egg for your children each day?” I asked. “No,” they said. “What about milk?” “Not enough.” We talked for a while about their work and conditions. They told me about the leaches during the monsoon season. “They climb up our legs. Each night we have to pull them off.” This thought alone put shivers down my spine. These women are often already anaemic; they don’t need to lose more blood!

Too hard to imagine?

When you’re desperately poor and there seems to be no way out, an offer for your teenage daughter to work or study in the big city feels like an opportunity too good to be true – and far too many families have found out the hard way that it most likely is! Many families in this area have had children travel with ‘agents’ for work or study opportunities in the city and have never ever heard from them again. They cry as they tell our team their stories, looking for hope that they may get their children back. Most of them never will. But our team faithfully plug on with their vital human-trafficking prevention in the region.

These children are sold and locked into factories, into brothels and as maids, with no freedom and no pay. Some are even victims of organ trade. I’ve stopped wondering what any of this would feel like and have gone fairly numb. One thing I do know is that I’m glad we’ve come to help support the trafficking prevention work. My anger boils at the fact these tea estates are owned by some of the largest and most profitable multinational companies. How’s this possible? It’s pure evil, that is certain – as you’ve read this has it been hard to believe that human beings have been put in such horrendous conditions by others? I wonder sometimes why this kind of thing is not headline news every day.

The interesting thing is that it’s possible to be able to be angry and upset but not act! Yes, there’s a thousand good causes pulling at us at any given moment – we can drown in a sea of confusion, pain, guilt and complexity. But when we’re face-to-face with that child or her mother, as I was that day, things become clearer! I guess that’s what I’m trying to share.

I know that guilt or pain isn’t going to help any of us respond. It’s not my intention to weigh you down. Instead, I want to offer hope. I read lately that holding hope is a spiritual discipline. Certainly I’ve found it so. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t learnt to tend hope like a young seedling in my heart. I tend hope each day and choose to go on working for a better world. I believe it’s Jesus who has ignited this hope and gives me each next step to take in seeing his Kingdom come. For me, being close to him means knowing his heart for those who are suffering and seeking to be his hands and feet in response.

Not everyone reading this will have the opportunity I’ve had to shift countries to work in human trafficking prevention. But history tells us that thousands of simple actions do add up in our lives and collectively across the globe. Actions like buying fair trade tea or signing a petition add up, inspire hope and can bring real change. The question is: what small actions can you contribute to this global symphony of life-transforming change?

Amanda and Dean are NZCMS Mission Partners in South Asia supporting children-at-risk and anti-human trafficking initiatives.

For discussion

Imagine you’re the one measuring a malnourished girl’s arm or talking with a mother about her trafficked child. What difference does personalising the situation make?

With such massive problems around the world it can be hard to hold on to hope. How does the promise of Jesus’ Kingdom change the way we see situations like this one?


Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of Intermission will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. Why not take up the challenge and start using Intermission in your community? For more information or to order copies click here.