Vijaya Letchumy was 34 by the time she earned her first pay. Exhilarated, she walked into a Madras jeweller in Dubai's Gold Souk, counted out Dh1,300 and walked away with a cross on a braided gold chain dangling from her neck. "I remember that day so clearly," she says shyly. "I was so happy to be a house maid in Dubai. It was my first money. And it was a very nice necklace," she says stroking her neck in memory. Mrs Letchumy recently gave it to her mother-in-law.
"She liked it so much." The story of the necklace, now back in Sri Lanka, is much like Mrs Letchumy's life. The youngest of nine children, she made it through five years of primary school at Tamil Maha Vidyala, which was located in the town of Ratnapura, about 11km from her village, but lacked the means to continue. From the age of 11, Mrs Letchumy cared for the family's one-room house in a village some 100km from Colombo.
Her father, who worked as driver in the capital, returned once a month, his pockets filled with sweets for the kids. Her mother and siblings occasionally found work at the local tea and rubber factories. But soon her sisters took off to work as maids in Bahrain and Dubai, while her two brothers made it to Holland and Switzerland. Mrs Letchumy, too, was desperate to leave Sri Lanka. "I used to ask myself, 'Why can't I go out into the world, meet people, work and buy my own clothes'?"
Now, after eight years in Dubai, Mrs Letchumy and her husband Kumar want to return home. "We hope to get a loan soon," she said. Her husband, who has cooked in government-run restaurants for four years, earns a base salary of Dh1200 and a family supplement of Dh800. Kumar hopes to become eligible for a loan soon. The couple needs Dh20,000 to buy a small piece of land in Kandy, a hilly, midsized city in the interior of Sri Lanka, and another Dh10,000 to build a simple house.
"That way my mother-in-law could stop working as a maid and move in with us," she says. When her sister got Mrs Letchumy a visa in 2000, she was delighted to come to Dubai. "Until then I never had a job, I never had money," she says. "I always gave the best for my family, I took care of everyone. That is also the reason I married late." Her mother, who died when Mrs Letchumy was 17, forbade her to work at the tea factory. When her father fell ill, he returned to the village to open a small store with rice, sugar and sweets for the local children.
But with far too little to make ends meet, her father and brother's family always depended on the money orders from abroad. Arriving in Dubai, Mrs Letchumy enthusiastically set up her own bank account. But it was only two years later - she had managed to save Dh10,000 - that she plundered her account to get married. "I used it all up, no one helped us and Kumar and me, we invited many friends," she says glowingly. The couple held a little party at her sister's employer's house in Jebel Ali, and later celebrated with relatives and friends back in Sri Lanka. "Living in Dubai, people at home expected something nice from us," she says. Shortly thereafter she needed another Dh6,000 to renew her visa.
Since then, she has never managed to save substantial amounts. She still has her dollar bank account - "dollars are good, and gold is good" she says - but between sending money back to Sri Lanka and visa fees her account balance rarely exceeds Dh1,000. Mrs Letchumy would like to send home Dh1,000 every month, but usually only manages Dh500. "Life is difficult in Sri Lanka, often there will be no rain, no water, so we don't have any harvest," she says.
But she mostly laments the lack of safety at home. She feels unsafe because of her country's poverty, and also because she is Tamil and easily recognised as such. "There is not much food, there are no jobs. Also, everybody recognises we are Tamils and it does not feel safe. There is too much jealousy in our country. I never wear my gold jewellery when I go out in the street, only at home." Living in Dubai, things are different.
"Dubai is very safe. I am so happy to be here. Everything is controlled, and we can go wherever we want, even at night," she says. "Yes, we must spend visa money, but we get a job and food. We enjoy it, we like it here." Back home, she says, "too many people throw stones when they get angry".She does not mind the large social differences in the Emirates. "In our country, there are also very rich people."
Her work in Dubai gives her Dh1,500 per month. Of that, about Dh500 goes toward food. She sends home Dh500 and keeps some Dh500 as pocket money. For example, she buys at least four Dh25 prepaid cards a month to call home. On special occasions, she buys lamb or mutton, a special henna shampoo, hair clips or facial cream. "But I never buy make-up, that is just too expensive," she says. She rarely treats herself to a new sari (about Dh150) or a western-style blouse (Dh20) in Satwa or Bur Dubai. Mrs Letchumy and her husband only go out to celebrate a wedding anniversary or a birthday. "After we get paid, we may go to the Indian Saravana Hotel and spend Dh150 on a very special meal and some special cakes to take home."
Sometimes, when she or her husband fall ill or have exceptional expenses, she may run low on money. But so far she has always managed to borrow money from friends or relatives, mostly her niece. "I can always rely on family, she says. "Growing up my mother cared for me, people will always help," she says. Mrs Letchumy's voice turns sad when she talks about her father's recent death. "I could not go back for the funeral," she says. "I had just lost my work and needed a new job. I did not have a ticket. All my brothers and sisters went. I could not even help to pay for the coffin. Until the day I die I will never forget that I could not go back to my father's funeral. It makes me feel so sad. But I had not saved any money at the time."
But her brother stopped over in Dubai on his way back to Switzerland and showed her a picture of her father's grave. If Mrs Letchumy has her way, she will be back in Sri Lanka before too long. In the meantime, she and her husband are collecting decorative items for their new home. Their maid's room is filled with hand-me-downs from former employers, including an oversized stereo system dating from the 1980s.
"It is broken," she says, slightly embarrassed. "But my husband thinks it looks impressive." Once her husband can take out a loan, the couple will buy the piece of land and bit by bit continue construction as they have money to send back. Her husband's cousin, who lives in Kandy, will supervise the work. "We will save money and send it back for the construction. It could take some years until it is finished and we can go home."