Co-operative series: A village garden co-operative – Part 5


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Script 5 – A Crisis

Note: This script and script 12 conclude the story of how a group of villagers joined together to form a co-operative garden. Their story began in Package 22, and continued in Package 23.


Summary of “A Village Garden Co-operative – Parts 1 and 2,” from Package 22: The people in a village faced another year of hunger because their crops failed once again. The soil was exhausted. Rain had swept away the topsoil on the hillside, and winds had blown the land dry. One villager, Maria, thought the villagers should get together to discuss their common problems and ways they could co-operate to help each other. The villagers held a meeting. At first no one was willing to speak, but finally, Kwesi agreed to tell his story. He said that because his soil was poor, he could grow few crops and his family did not get enough nutritious food. To feed his children, Kwesi had to leave his family and work for other landowners. The other villagers began to tell their stories. Maria suggested the villagers start a co-operative vegetable garden. By sharing their labour and knowledge, they could succeed. The villagers liked the idea, and a meeting was set for the following week.

Summary of “A Village Garden Co-operative – Parts 3 and 4,” from Package 23: Maria visited Cheng, a member of the neighbouring village’s co-operative, for advice about starting a garden co-operative. He said she must do research to make sure the community garden would work in her village. On Cheng’s advice, Maria asked the villagers what food they wanted most, and discovered it was onions. They liked to use onions in many of their traditional meals. Maria went to the city market to see if she would be able to sell their surplus onions there. It looked promising. Cheng cautioned Maria that the villagers would have to understand the principles of co-operation. The co-operative is designed to benefit everyone equally and can exclude no one who has a contribution to make. Maria described the benefits of a community garden to the villagers and the responsibilities that would come with it. For instance, each member had to contribute some money to get the garden started. The villagers were excited about the idea, and Maria announced that the community garden co-operative was officially begun. She called the next meeting for the following week.

Special note: Starting a co-operative is a serious venture. In these scripts we aim to get people thinking about ways they can co-operate to improve their lives. The word “co-operative” has different meanings in different countries. In some countries, this word refers only to organizations set up or run by governments, or with a great deal of government involvement. In this series, we are talking about a different type of co-operative. The co-operatives we describe spring from the needs of a group of farmers. We are talking about basic, small-scale co-operation at the village level. In some countries, this would be referred to as a “self-help group” or “pre-co-operative.” Please adapt the term “co-operative” to fit your local situation.

Starting a co-operative is complicated; many co-ops fail. Expert advice is needed at the planning stage to help people avoid the many pitfalls that lie on the road to a successful co-operative. Perhaps someone from a nearby league of co-operatives could be consulted. When presenting this and other scripts about co-operatives, please introduce examples of co-ops in your area, and discuss how they are working.

The village garden co-operative was underway. The members decided to call it the Sunshine Co-op, because they were hoping the sun would fall on their fields and bring a good harvest. As the manager of the co-operative, Maria set up the schedule for starting the garden. Over the months, the payments made by each member added up. Eventually the members were able to buy shovels, hoes, and other tools for digging the soil, rooting out the plant roots tangled deep into the earth, and putting up a wire fence to keep animals out.

Thirty-five villagers formed the Sunshine co-op. The villagers worked in shifts; there were not enough tools for everyone to work at once. Maria was careful to accommodate mothers who had to fit their garden duties into their already hectic routines. She also considered the schedules of the men who tended their own farms and also went to work in other towns. The members put up a piece of lime-washed wood, and Maria and Karam, the co-op bookkeeper, carefully filled out the work schedule for the next few weeks. This was a reminder to people; they had all been told what dates and times they were scheduled to work on the garden. The co-operation was amazing.

People were still surprised that their tiny contributions, combined with the contributions of the others, had really added up to enough to buy anything. Bertha, in one meeting, said that she had been trying to save for a sturdy shovel for such a long time. She had given up finally because she realized it would take her years to save enough. Everyone was excited when Maria announced that she had come back from the city market with a variety of seeds. The time to plant had finally arrived. Cheers rang out and people volunteered entire days of labour to get the plot ready.

Rajhid was one of the more outspoken members of the co-operative. He was very clever, and he noticed that after all the scheduling was completed, there were some people who would work more than others. “What happens when the harvest comes in and it is time to divide the food among the co-op members?” he asked. “The person who works 25 hours does not deserve to get as much food as me. I work 50 hours. That just would not be fair, would it?”

Maria remembered what old Cheng said to her; in a co-operative, people must realize that they only get out what they put in—everything must be shared in a co-operative, but shared according to what is contributed. Maria said, “In the case you describe, Rajhid, at the end of the season, you will receive twice as much food as the other person. If that is unfair, tell me so.”

There was some general grumbling from the crowd, mostly from the people who had volunteered the least amount of time, but everyone knew this was the only way to ensure that everyone did the work they had committed themselves to do.

A few weeks later, the villagers saw the fruit of their labours. The vegetables were sprouting nicely. People kept to their schedules of weeding and watering regularly. The natural fertilizers and pesticides that Cheng had instructed the members to use produced good results at very low cost. The co-op members were even able to bring in a little more income by renting their tools to farmers when they did not need them. Everyone seemed to be able to fit in the extra work. It was not easy, but no one was complaining. They just had to look at the results of their work to give them that extra burst of energy they needed to keep going.

Maria was mostly pleased, but at the same time she was uneasy about something. One family was not doing its share. Kwame and his wife Rebea started out well, showing up each time they had agreed to work. One day Kwame would come, and the next day Rebea would come to work. Then, suddenly, on a day Kwame was scheduled to weed the garden, his eight-year-old son Kofi came instead. He said his father was ill, his mother was looking after the children, and he was going to do the work himself. Maria thought about this, and reluctantly let Kofi do some work. But it was a hot day. As everyone knows, weeding is hard work. It did not seem right that this small boy had to do the work, so after twenty minutes Maria told the boy to stop. Kofi was grateful and ran away quickly before Maria could change her mind.

In the next few weeks, Kwame missed a lot of shifts due to sickness, and Rebea missed more and more of her shifts. In a small village, word travels fast. It was not long at all until the co-op members discovered that on days when Kwame missed his garden shift due to illness, he was out working his own field. Once he was seen coming out of the village bar looking quite well, even happy. Maria got complaints from the members who were taking the garden seriously. What should she do? She called an emergency meeting of the co-op for that evening.

That evening Maria called the 12th meeting of the Sunshine Co-op to order. After some routine business, she asked Kwame and Rebea to explain why they had missed so many meetings. Kwame said they had both taken ill from overwork in their own fields. They were willing to send another member of the family to take their place.

Maria wanted to tell Kwame that everyone had seen him at work in his fields. People had even seen him drinking in the village bar when he was saying he was too sick to do his garden chores. But she knew this was a very delicate situation and she needed to be fair and tactful. Calling Kwame a liar in front of the co-op members would not solve anything. She was pleased that no one had shouted out their feelings. Maria said she sympathized when people were sick and could not attend their work shifts, but people had to be responsible for their actions. If co-op members were sick on the day they were to irrigate the garden, they must get word to the manager or other members to make sure that the job gets done. Here Rajhid brought up the question on everyone’s mind. “If a few members never show up to do their work, can we throw them out of the co-op?” he asked. Maria replied that if the members debated this and reached a consensus, they had the right to eject a co-op member. “But do you really think this is necessary here?” she asked. “Kwame, do you want to remain in the Sunshine Co-op?”

“Yes, I do”, Kwame answered. “I am sorry my wife and I have been falling behind, but you know it is hard to find time to get all the work done at home. I don’t get a day of rest—I’m lucky if I get one hour of rest. But I want a share of the harvest, because I can see now that it is going to be very big! I want another chance. Please show us some mercy.”

There was a general rumbling among the members. They had been thinking about Kwame and Rebea for a long time. It was no secret that they had missed a lot of shifts. But at the same time members could sympathize. There were many times when they had dragged themselves out of bed at the break of day to tend to the garden when there were a hundred other things already on their lists of chores. And were there not 34 other co-op members who could keep the garden running if they missed this one day? But then, if everyone thought this way, no one would show up to work and the garden would become a weed bed.

Co-operation suddenly became complicated. On the one hand, everyone had to co-operate to make the garden work, with no exceptions. But on the other hand, people were not perfect, and if there was a problem, everyone had to co-operate to solve it. In the spirit of co-operation, if a member is having problems, they must be helped, not shunned.

Bertha spoke up. “Why don’t we reduce the workload of Kwame and Rebea, and give them a smaller share of the harvest at the end of the year? We could also give them more shifts raking and watering in the morning, and fewer shifts bending down and weeding, and then they would have more energy to do their own work at home.”

The members discussed this idea, and decided it was the best solution. Because it was a small group, this co-operative decided to make decisions by consensus instead of by voting. With consensus, if people disagree, they have a chance to give their reasons and have a debate about it. That way, even a member who disagrees with a decision is part of the decision. Usually an agreement can be worked out.

In this instance, Maria, Guillermo, and nearly everyone in the group accepted Bertha’s idea. Kwame was more than willing to accept a smaller share and do less work. In this case, it was decided that Kwame and Rebea deserved another chance. That is what they got. The Sunshine Co-op had met the crisis and dealt with it.


Note: This story ends in the following script, 12.

Information sources

Mary Lou Morgan, a consultant for the Canadian Co-operative Association and SUMAC Consulting, a co-operative development group.