“People like us will somehow make a living”

On a walk down one of the many byroads of Slave Island during midday, we encountered a curious sight: a fairly elderly man wearing a sarong and a dusty green cap, sitting cross-legged on the side of the road next to a gushing tap by the gutter and surrounded by a sea of plastic bottles and bottle caps. Every now and then the man would drop a short length of chain into one of the bottles, screw on the lid and shake it furiously. Once satisfied the bottle was clean on the inside, he would scrub at the outside, peeling away the old label with the aid of a soapy brush. An almost empty cup of tea perched on top of the tap collecting stray suds.

The scene was so fascinating that we had to stop and ask him about his odd profession. He was too busy to talk at the time, and wouldn’t be distracted from his task, but looked away long enough to give us his phone number and address. The promise of his story was too good to miss.

Despite his brusque manner on the day we met, we found Abdul Cader Nazaruddin to be cheerful and full of chatter when we visited him at his home. He was also surprisingly young – 48 years had flecked his hair with grey and days out in the sun had toughened his dark skin. His wife, a large smiling woman, could never quite get used to the camera and giggled uncontrollably every time we directed it her way.

As Nazaruddin’s story unfolded, we realized that he was the perfect example of the resilience of Slave Island folk. Once out of work, he realized he would have to generate an income on his own in order to feed his family. The result – a small-scale recycling business which he began in partnership with his brother. They didn’t stop at bottles either: on another visit to his house, we discovered Nazaruddin with two other men, cleaning an assortment of junk metal, from old air conditioners to bicycle wheels. Sweat and silver metal caught the glare of the midday sun so much so that it was almost hard to watch. The sound of clanging metal reverberated around the small alleyway in front of Nazaruddin’s house as all three men pounded, scrubbed and pried apart scraps of metal well into the afternoon.

Nazaruddin speaks with pride about all he has achieved today but assures us that is difficult work, driven forward only by an instinct for survival. “You can’t survive in this place if you can’t make a living” he tells us with all the conviction of first-hand experience. Yet, he is prouder still of his community and his generation – the ones who didn’t have the good fortune of a good education and the opportunities that came with it. Cut from the same tough cloth, they are a people, he says, who will do whatever it takes to ensure their families never have to miss a single meal.

Produced by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, as part of Walkabout: Slave Island. Watch the trailer to this series below, and visit the Moving Images website for more stunning content on Sri Lanka.