Every day I used to pass her smiling and standing merrily at her stall on Caroni Branch Road. Nestled between several dasheen bush fields, she would be there willing to assist the many customers who stopped dutifully to purchase dasheen bush at her stall. Today photopgrapher Michael Bruce and I decide to follow suit and stop not only to purchase her green leafy products but to uncover the story behind the pleasant smile and hardworking demeanour.
"This bush is roll bush by nature or roll bush by design?" I use this question as my introductory greeting. She smiles, "So yuh know the tricks people does try then. We don't deceive customers like that. Roll bush is the young dasheen bush that is harvested when the leaves are young, fresh and rolled up, it cooks better. Some vendors take old bush and roll it up and tie it overnight with string to give the illusion of roll bush!" she asserts.
I then learn her name — Maltee Ramdeo — and the rationale behind the roll bush deception. Apparently, a bundle of roll bush can be sold for $10 while ordinary bush is sold for $5. "Girl, some vendors out here to make money regardless of the means but not me and my husband, we want to make ah honest day work," the Caroni resident says.
Soon a truck pulls up in front of her stall and she sighs as a man jumps out to purchase some of her big bundles of dasheen bush. "Gimme ah minute eh, this man does buy bush for saheena, he manages a shop in Mt Hope," she says to me and within seconds the youthful mother of five makes her sale with admirable flair and business savvy. "Boy, how sales went this morning? Everything sell out? I save these for you. Drive safely eh, I will see you tomorrow!" she tells the saheena salesman/truck driver, with a huge smile on her face.
As the truck pulls out, a brown-skinned man comes to the stall and she introduces him as her husband. "We working for more than 20 years in the garden. I grow up in garden. My father used to work in the cane in La Romain. I from there you know," she reveals.
"How long have you been a dasheen bush farmer/vendor?" I ask. "Four years now I in the dasheen bush business but I used to plant and sell vegetables — tomatoes, sweet pepper, hot pepper and many more — in years gone by. I used to mind livestock as a child too but I was never a meat lover because I grow up on dasheen, yam and cassava not much meat because we were poor and we couldn't afford it!"
A nose ring decorates her tanned face and a gold tooth complements her brilliant smile but the mud on her feet tells a story of hard toil in the fields.
"The dasheen bush business is a real good business, trust meh. You could rent a half a lot right here for just $200 a week but you could make up to $3,000 in sales a week. People think this bush business is a buss but it's not, believe me. Agriculture have money in it, yuh just have to know how to manage your crops and your customers. Like dasheen bush is ah crop that love water so yuh have to bank yuh beds and just feed it with water. Yuh can't overcut either because that could cause the field to dry up. The next thing is your customers. Nobody want to buy anything from a grumpy person, a smile always make them spend more money!" she claims.
After dasheen bush husbandry 101, I think I can start my field on the side.
While his wife tells her story, Mr Ramdeo just leans on a table in the stall with admiration in his eyes. He then proudly interjects, "You see this woman here? She is ah real woman. She is a hard worker!" I see a new emotion in his wife's eyes. It doesn't say dasheen bush farmer or even mother of five but much more. As if she reads my thoughts she gives me a deeper insight into her 31 years of existence.
"I have thyroid cancer you know. I discovered it when I had my fifth child. I went to doctor for it. I decided against chemotherapy because I didn't have anybody to care for my children when I was doing it. When I get somebody to care for them then I will do chemo. But girl, to be honest, right now I just enjoying my life. I did plenty in my lifetime. I have four beautiful children ranging in ages from twelve to one, three girls and one boy. I have a supportive husband and most of all I have me. I doh go temple all the time but I pray. I pray for healing and somehow I think it will happen eventually. Living with the cancer can be hard at times. Sometimes I feel real weak and with this disease sometimes you fat, sometimes you skinny. But if is one thing I went and I learn everything about the disease so that I could live with it!" the dedicated agriculturalist says.
As Micheal scrutinises her dasheen bush and buys some of her rough skin lemon (her stall has other vegetables in addition to the main dasheen bush commodity), Ramdeo just has one more thing to tell me before we wrap up the interview.
"Do you believe that as a child I wanted to be a dancer? I used to dance for the Indian Variety Show and Mastanar Bahar. I even place fourth in Mastana Bahar. I used to dance with the Solomon Helen Hosein Dance Group and Lisa Bisson. That is why I have a nose ring, it is my dance symbol"
I sigh and shake my head as I leave the dancer cum dasheen bush farmer, her husband and her inspiring life story.
Its so strange how you pass people every day and you really don't have a clue as to what their story is. Well, I certainly became wiser on the intrigues of the dasheen bush woman today and believe it or not, whenever I pass her stall again I wouldn't simply smile and pass by but I'll stop and buy a real bunch of roll bush!