Growing Food and Pride. Vegetable farms help produce a sense of dignity for women in Mozambique's agricultural cooperatives

EVERY day, it seems, more tiny, cane-thatch huts spring up on this flat, sandy land. They practically ring the sprawling capital with its down-at-the-heel high-rises and potholed boulevards. Refugees have been flocking to Maputo for years, fleeing the brutality of rebel guerrillas in the countryside and looking for food, work, and a means of survival. Albine Stoy and her four children came in 1987 from a village about 50 miles away. Rebel troops had killed their neighbors, and she was afraid to stay at home. Her husband, like so many other Mozambican men, had gone to work in South Africa years before. He visits his family once or twice a year, and every two months arranges for food to be sent to them.

Mrs. Stoy is beautiful, tall, and slender, with a hauntingly sad expression. Shyly she explains that she does not know what work her husband does in South Africa. He writes her letters, but she doesn't know how to read. It is not clear how she and her children survive.

Thousands like Stoy, barely able to feed their families, huddle around Maputo, hoping a means of survival will appear by virtue of their proximity to the city.

But thousands - about 11,500, in fact - have found their way out of utter poverty. They are members of a network of agricultural cooperatives founded in 1980, called the General Union of Cooperatives of the Green Zones. The organization supplies Maputo with more than 50 percent of the vegetables the city's 1 million people consume.

The General Union began as an offshoot of a government-run system of agricultural collectives established after independence in 1975. Most were dismal failures because they were run with a top-down, authoritarian hand, and members had little say in management decisions. Observers say the key to the cooperatives' success has been the active participation of members in the management of the individual processing units. In socialist Mozambique, the General Union's democratic structure makes it a dynamic engine for grass-roots development.

To its members, the General Union provides low-cost farm produce, a 25 percent discount on other foods, day care with three meals a day for young children, literacy classes, technical and leadership training, hygiene and nutrition courses, health care for mothers and children, and for some, access to new housing. The 210 cooperatives also have a high school, pig and duck farms, fish ponds, a ceramics factory, bio-gas processing plants, a reforestation program, animal feed factories, and an auto mechanics' workshop.

Because so many men have either been killed in the war or are working in South Africa, 95 percent of the General Union's members are women. For these illiterate peasants, belonging to the cooperatives provides a sense of mutual support, self-esteem, and confidence in their own abilities that is totally new to them.

In a self-styled Marxist country, the General Union's stress on democracy may be surprising. But many observers are impressed with the participatory way in which the cooperatives are run. Armindo Braz Barradas, director of commerce of the city of Maputo, has high praise for the organization.

``The most important thing about the General Union is how the cooperatives are managed,'' he says. ``They are run by the peasants themselves. And it's honest management. The members see that and they trust the organization. They are stimulated to work.''

A gentle rain is misting down on terraced plots planted with lettuce and onions at a cooperative called 8th of March. Eight women with kerchiefs on their heads, wearing long, brightly colored cotton skirts, bend from the hips over the earth. They hoe, weed, and plant with regular, fluid movements; some have babies strapped to their backs. As they work, they sing, in harmony, a low-pitched, rhythmic song.

Outside this gently sloping garden, the soil is as dry and sandy as it is where Albine Stoy lives. But within the vegetable plot, between the rows of low, concrete walls running perpendicular to the incline, the earth is dark, heavy, and moist.

``We built these low walls to control erosion,'' says the leader of the cooperative, an elderly woman called Mama Matilda. ``We use pig and chicken manure, and we make compost out of plants and earth mixed. We often leave part of the garden covered with hay and let it rest, and we plant tubers, which help to improve the soil.'' Suddenly, as if attesting to the richness of the soil, a four-inch-long snail appears at her feet. With a grin Mama Matilda picks it up and tosses it out of the garden.

Around the vegetable garden the co-op members have planted trees: oranges, bananas, and papayas for their fruit, and casuarina pines as windbreakers.

``At first we had only agriculture here,'' says Mama Matilda. But she adds, with undisguised pride: ``Then we got pigs, then we got a well for clean water, then we got the day-care center. We're able to offer day care to our members because our co-op is so successful.''

Support from foreign donors helps, too. The General Union receives development funds from sources such as the governments of Norway, Switzerland, and Canada, and private institutions like the National Council of Negro Women in the United States. But failed development programs all over the world attest to the fact that money, without program management that is responsive to people's real needs, cannot buy success.

At the 8th of March co-op, the soft rain has let up, and a single file of toddlers, dressed in identical white pajamas with red and black playing cards all over them, emerges, shepherded by two teachers, from the whitewashed day-care building. They head for the bathroom - a separate structure, well built and spotless. One of the main purposes of the day-care centers is to teach the children Portuguese (they speak Ronga or Changana at home) so they will be able to attend the state-run primary schools. Many of their parents have had only one or two years of school and speak little or no Portuguese.

Parents are charged a ``symbolic'' fee of about $1 a month to provide three meals a day for their children - a sum that does not nearly cover the costs of the rice, cornmeal, fish, vegetables, and milk served. But co-op members put a high value on these meals, which are often more substantial than what is available at home. Few children, for example, ever have milk outside the day-care centers.

Members work at the co-op from 7 to 10:30 a.m. Here at 8th of March, literacy classes are held at 11. In the afternoon, members work on their small family farms, called chambas. They keep a portion of the produce grown at the co-op and have access to seeds, fertilizer, and technical expertise to improve their yields. The cooperatives also offer members discount prices on other food, including meat, which would normally be completely beyond their means. The bulk of the produce is sold in the markets of Maputo, and the profits defray the costs of the services the co-ops provide.

In addition to producing pork for members and for the market, the 1,800 pigs serve as collateral for bank loans obtained to enable the cooperative to build the day-care center and a produce warehouse. The pig manure is processed into bio-gas and used to cook the children's meals.

Chichinya is the Ronga word for courage, and it's also the name General Union members have given to the leadership-training class, which all co-op members take for one week every year. To women who have never belonged to a group before and were brought up never to speak out or criticize others, it takes chichinya to participate in the democratic process.

``In the past, people were afraid to speak out,'' says Celina Cossa, president of the General Union. ``Now they do. Those in positions of power have been criticized by members. For members to take on that kind of responsibility - that's democracy.''

In one chichinya class, presided over by a social worker from Chile, 10 members - three with babies strapped to their backs - discuss the problems that arise in their co-ops. Their most common problem, they say, is how to confront a co-op leader who they feel is not properly performing her duties.

After acting out skits to illustrate the situation, the students get the message: Elected leaders should serve those who elect them. If the group of members agrees that their president has behaved dishonestly, for example, they decide they should speak out and insist on a change. If no change is forthcoming, they should vote the president out of office.

Later, the discussion turns to the nature of power. The teacher asks what power is not, and after some discussion the women, some barely literate, agree that true power does not consist of ``money, weapons, academic credentials, or political clout.'' Instead, they decide that true power lies in ``union, service, the ability to win people's trust, and technical expertise.''

In another departure from socialist ideology, Mrs. Cossa sees the recent liberalization of Mozambique's economy as a stimulus for the co-ops to produce more.

``Before the free-market policies, the co-ops produced a little and sold a little and they didn't expand,'' she says. ``Now, with real market prices, things are more expensive. We have to produce more and we have to diversify and the benefits are greater. This is good. I want to stimulate people's creativity. The peasants have to think for themselves. I would like the co-ops eventually to be business enterprises that pay salaries. That would really be development for the members.''

Much of the credit for the organization's efficiency goes to an Italian priest, the Rev. Prosperino Gallipoli, who has worked with peasants in Mozambique since the 1950s. Though he keeps himself very much in the background, Fr. Gallipoli is the guiding force of the organization - and he has very definite views on what development in a country like Mozambique should be. ``Development is a social process,'' says the down-to-earth, effusive Italian. ``It's not really about providing jobs for people or satisfying basic needs. The economic part is only a way to help people gain self-esteem. Underdevelopment is a spiritual problem, it's a lack of active, critical thinking, initiative, and self-confidence. People here still have complexes left over from the colonial days.

``Vegetable farming in the co-ops is a means, not an end. The objective is to bring out the capacities of man in all his dignity.''

Part 3 of a five-part series: Next Wednesday: Big results from small businesses in Madras, India.

SNAPSHOT OF MOZAMBIQUE Agriculture is the mainstay of this southeastern African country's economy, providing two-thirds of the jobs and most of the exports (cashew nuts, cotton, tea). Since gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique has pursued Marxist-Leninist policies that have resulted in most Portuguese, along with their managerial and technical skills, leaving the country. Despite massive foreign aid, economic conditions have worsened in recent years as insurgency and drought have produced famine.

Area in square miles: 309,490 (slightly larger than Texas). Total population: 15.1 million. Population/square mile: 49 (US: 68). Per capita GNP: $210 (US: $17,500). Mortality rate for children under 5 years: 295/1,000 (US: 13/1,000). Fertility rate: 6.1 children/woman (US: 1.8). Percentage of infants with low birth weight: 15 (US: 7). Percentage of literate adults male/female: 55/22. Life expectancy at birth: 47 years (US: 76). Percentage of population in urban areas: 23 (US: 74).

Sources: The Population Reference Bureau; UNICEF; Political Handbook of the World (1987).

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