Among the covered heads are those that are uncovered. Seated on mats on the floor, behind a makeshift screen of colourful sarees slung on a string drawn across the room, Tamil and Muslim women are listening to a Moulavi on the other side, leading the group in prayer before breaking fast.
Ifthar is routine every evening for Muslims during the month of Ramazan when they break fast but this occasion is special - taking part for the first time is a group of Tamil women.
The scene is set in Periya Karisal, one km off the Mannar-Talaimannar Road in a small building of the Women's Rural Development Societies, where Muslim women are hosting Tamil women from the adjoining village of Sinna Karisal to the evening meal. After prayers as they pass round dates, drinks, hot cutlets and patties and large bowls of rice kanjee with vegetables thrown in, there is much laughter and banter.
In the same building locked up in a tiny room is the resource that has united them - a stock of raw cashew, awaiting processing. "There was no hostility or enmity before but there was also not much bonding though we lived in neighbouring villages," says 52-year-old S. Rasamma, adding that cashew has brought the two culturally diverse groups, though speaking the same language, together.
The links between the two groups began nearly two years ago, when under the 'Cashew Processing Project for Women's Rural Development Societies in the Mannar district' a cashew roaster and other tools were donated to them. Six months ago, in a bid to empower them economically and improve their entrepreneurship skills they were provided technical and business development training.
The project, funded by AusAid, implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and executed by the Nucleus Foundation, is a follow up to a resource management awareness programme to assess whether the villages' resources were fully utilized. Although cashew was an important resource, the programme had found that traditionally the women collected the raw cashew and sold it to vendors at a paltry sum.
|Muslim and Tamil women bonding at break fast time.
Even if they processed it, only a primitive method was used.
For Thamarai Selvi, 33, processing cashew in the past had been an arduous task. The mother of two boys, one of whom is "not too well" after contracting brain fever when he was just three months old, she used to buy small quantities of cashew, roast them in a large pan, while tediously blowing the fire and inhaling smoke and then split them by hitting with a small rod. For all her labours, the final product was unsatisfactory with little market value - no whole cadjus emerged, only pieces and they were discoloured and not so tasty.
The story was the same for 18-year-old Sandra Kala whose fingers had turned raw and become infested with blisters due to the cashew milk. She was engaging in this labour to save up money for her wedding.
S. Farzana, 28, had been poultry farming "but that was not profitable", she says. When the idea of a profitable cashew processing project spread across the village, she too joined the 25 other Muslim and Tamil women to learn the new techniques.
Like Farzana, widow S. Thangakelli joined the cashew business later. "Yes," she did roast a few cashews and shelled them for the family but not on a large scale.
The new skills helped them to move away from the primitive method of roasting cashew in a pan over the fire and then laboriously shelling them. Now wearing protective gear like gloves they shell them first and roast them in the oven which had pride of place in the building. An added bonus was the social integration that came about.
"See, now we get the whole cadju instead of pieces," says Rasamma, the veteran, tenderly bringing out a large pack of whole, ivory cadju from a cupboard. "They are a nice colour too," she says. Earlier they would get a bulk of broken pieces but now 90% are whole cadjus and only 10% pieces. While earlier it was just a home industry, now they have even bought a common stock to swell their savings
Their skills and prowess, thanks to the training and technology, have spread across Mannar town and restaurants are buying up the processed whole cadju at Rs. 1,200 a kilo and cadju pieces at Rs. 800-900 a kilo.
"Designing long-term, post-disaster rehabilitation programmes is essential for development. With the changing environment in Mannar, businesses and communities are eager to rebuild and spark economic growth to create a sense of normalcy. Working together, IOM supports communities to bring in different skills and competencies to create viable business ventures," said Patrick Charignon, Head of Early Recovery and Livelihood Development for IOM Sri Lanka.
IOM has also developed a network that encompasses the Rural Development Officer, the Industrial Development Officer, the Grama Sevaka and the Cashew Development Board.
As the evening shadows lengthen and the two groups of women, not "mango friends" but "cashew sisters" head for home, the Muslims in Periya Karisal and the Tamils in Sinna Karisal, there are promises of a similar celebration when Deepavali comes round in October.
The hope is not only for further links between the two groups but also to work towards sustainability by securing a niche market in cities such as Colombo with mouth-watering delicacies as chocolate-coated cadju and marzipan-filled cadju.