Take Sugar?


It’s hard to think that something so sweet and delectable as sugar is only made possible by the sweaty, grimy calloused hands of the cane cutter! Before most of us are awake, these men are filling their water bottles, buckling up their steel-capped boots, pulling on their thick rubber gloves and taking their place in the field, with rows upon rows of caramelized burnt cane to slash.

Their rugged faces, dripping with sweat and congealed dust and their piercing eyes – whites starkly contrasting with black, sooty faces – so far off from the sweet, pure substance we take by the spoonful!

The cane cutters start their day early, when the shadows still belong to moonlight and when every small movement reverberates in the slumbering village. They arrive in time for the sun’s first appearance, dimly lighting the infinite rows of cane. They buckle up their heavy, protective gear and get to work; making the most of the first gentler hours of the day.

As the sun rises, gaining more and more strength by the hour, beating down onto the soaked-through backs of men – they muster their spirits; chatting, laughing and breathing in the aroma of liquid sugar as it drips from the slashed cane. Midday approaches and the rows of cane begin to thin. When the end is in sight and more than just a distant light, they generously splash the last bit of water from their plastic bottles onto their blackened faces, removing a thick layer of sugary grime.

With bodies aching and muscles trembling, they take a communal bath in the nearby canal. They strip off their sweat-drenched clothes and soak away the day, with only heads bobbing above the brown, murky water. They wash their clothes and walk home to their families – ready for another marathon of cane cutting and another day of wages; of food, of school fees, of medicine, of clothes.

“I’ve always been amused by the contention that brain work is harder than manual labor. I’ve never known a man to leave a desk for a muck-stick if he could avoid it.”
― John Steinbeck, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction




“People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.”
― Frederick Douglass




“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.



“There is no substitute for hard work.” – Thomas Edison



“It’s easier to bleed than sweat, Mr. Motes.”
― Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood




“Every job from the heart is, ultimately, of equal value. The nurse injects the syringe; the writer slides the pen; the farmer plows the dirt; the comedian draws the laughter. Monetary income is the perfect deceiver of a man’s true worth.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy

13 replies »

  1. Shocking to see that the men need metal contraptions to protect their feet and legs. Sugarcane must be hard and unwieldy, similar to bamboo, I imagine. Your images convey the hardship of working with sugarcane. So much respect to these men…

    • Thanks Sarah 🙂 Very much so. The heat in Mozambique, especially around this time of year, is unbelievably hot and it’s extraordinary that these men get through the cane like they do. There are limited positions every year for cane cutters and so in a country with such low employment, these men take what they can get. They’re tough as nuts, respect for their strength and stamina!

    • I often feel ever so split as a buyer of products like sugar! I have to say that we only ever by Fair Trade but I’m still aware that working conditions are dangerous and hard even if they are paid more fairly. But then I’m also aware that people struggle the world over to make a living. Jobs are scarce in many parts of the world where poverty is one of the biggest killers! In many parts of Africa and India the poorest are often drawn into illegal poaching or other dangerous occupations in slums or in the landfill sites just to try to feed their families. If only there could be a more balanced world economy! I too have huge respect for these guys! There are many people who refuse jobs here in the UK because they think they deserve better or the work is beneath them. They don’t know how damned lucky and privileged they are even while they’re ranting at the unfairness of “having” to rely on the welfare state and charities.

  2. Stunning photographs – I particularily like the one above the words “No work in insignificant…” The eyes say it. And the toil and labor….- just another day! M 🙂