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A day cutting cane

Serafina Silaitoga
Sunday, October 11, 2009

IT'S not the kind of job that everyone falls for but it certainly plays a crucial part of our local economy.

Cane cutting is a job most villagers opt for during harvesting season in the Northern Division as it gives them extra cash apart from their own dalo and yaqona farming.

Hearing a lot of people complain and grumble about cane cutting, I decided to try it out at least for a day because it's either people complain about the job or they look down on the job for some reason or another.

And this was obvious from the reaction I received when I explained to friends and family about my plans to spend a day at a cane cutter's camp and join them in the farm.

"What", "oh no", were some responses while others just frowned.

But whatever the reason, experiencing one day with a group of cane cutters in Seaqaqa, outside Labasa Town and spending the night at the camp only spoke of how important these people are to Fiji's economy that without them, our second largest industry could be crippled and affect the livelihoods of people who depend on it.

I arrived at the camp in Vunimanuca at Seaqaqa on a Friday evening after my colleague Theresa Ralogaivau dropped me off at about 7pm.

The cane cutters were all at the camp taking a break from the hard day's work but the warmth of their hospitality didn't lack anything.

"Drau bula vinaka. Drau curu sara mai iloma," were the kind words of welcome from the cane cutters who travelled from Navave Village in Bua.

After the night of welcome and socialising, it was back to business on Saturday at about 5am when I heard the group leader, Isimeli Koroi calling.

"Boys, boys, raboys ni yadra, yadra (Boys wake up)," Isimeli continuously called out.

Ten minutes later the boys were up and so was yours truly who joined the group waiting under a raintree beside the camp.

The cold morning breeze was not easy to tackle as we struggled to get up and head for the farm. The farm, which sits beside the camp was about 15 minutes walk away. With buckets of water, cane knives and shirts hanging on our backs we slowly walked towards the farm singing songs of praise to God asking for his guidance at the farm.

Once at the farm, Mr Koroi shared the duties amongst the 13 men and me.

I decided to join my 13- year- old mute new friend Aselemo Drotini, in cutting a row of cane, which was about 50 metres long.

Using sign language, I asked him how'd we manage to complete cutting the long line of cane.

He smiled and responded with both thumbs up that we could do it as a team.

And we did but I sure did struggle half way through cutting cane as my fingers started to get sore.

I watched the men cut cane and didn't see any expression of tiredness on their faces nor see them sit down for a short break.

Throughout the two hours of cutting cane under the hot sun, they remained on their feet, cutting and cutting cane row after row. And amidst their hard work they joked and laughed to help keep them going.

It reminded me of how the labourers in the early 1990s at my family's cane farm outside the gold town used to work tirelessly at the farm and load trucks of cane for the Ba mill.

I'd spend time with the labourers during the school holidays delivering food to them and looking back at that has only made me realise how this group of people play a vital role in the sugar industry yet, many times have been taken for granted.

Without these labourers and farmers, tasting sweet rewards would be impossible because they do the heart of the job - crushing is just a late stage basically done by machines.

I continued with my partner Drotini and throughout the time of cutting cane, he kept looking at me asking me with his right thumb up whether I was fine.

In the first 40 minutes of cutting cane I responded with a thumbs up showing Drotini that I was okay.

But this was not to last long as my fingers especially, my right thumb started to give up on me. Making sure Drotini didn't notice my discomfit, I signalled that I'd join another group.

"Ha, ha," he quickly said while pointing and laughing at me indicating that I was unfit to do the job.

While sharing the moment with Drotini, the group of toddlers at the camp arrived with breakfast at about 7am some bread and biscuits with two kettles of tea.

"Io, rauta, cegu mada. Da gunuti (Let's rest and have breakfast)," said Mr Koroi.

Breakfast was under a cane truck as we longed for a shady spot and cool breeze.

Half an hour of breakfast and it was back to work. At about 9am, we finished cutting cane and started loading

The toddler's group (children of labourers) between the ages of three to five did their job handing out cups of water.

Loading the cane on the truck was a lighter job and by 11am, we were done with the first load of cane and ready to head back to the camp.

Mr Koroi said it was the first time for the labourers from Navave in Bua to cut cane and was one of the most enjoyable and pleasing jobs they've come across.

He said the villagers all had their own yaqona and dalo farms but when the opportunity to cut cane was offered to them, they took up the challenge.

"We didn't hesitate because we knew it was something different from our daily farming and we also wanted to make extra money for our families.

"A lot of the labourers in our camp are school leavers and have just started with their dalo and yaqona farms so getting this extra money will help them expand their farms," Mr Koroi said.

He said achieving a day's target of cutting and loading cane depended on the team and its leader.

"I always remind the boys everyday that team work is very important and without it problems and differences can happen.

"So we always sit together after every session of cutting cane and discuss where we went wrong, our weak points at the job site and what we can do to better our performance," Mr Koroi said.

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