Case study: Onions and wives

drawing of an onion

Agrimissions / community development study based on one written by Roger David Heeren

Some general case study guidelines are available to aid in your reflection and discussion.

Beth Jones down-shifted her Honda dirt bike into first gear as she wearily climbed the last hill into Kabala, a mountain village in northern Sierra Leone, West Africa.

At four o'clock the Kabala Women's Agricultural Cooperative (KWAC) was meeting. Beth knew there would be trouble. The village chief (and husband of the KWAC president) had used the coop's onion money to buy two more wives and the women were upset.

Beth faced a dilemma: Should she side with the women (some of whom seemed as angry at her as they were at the chief) and try to save her friendship with them? Or should she try to save her job as an agricultural extension agent by acknowledging the chief's authority?

Beth thought back to the month of cross-cultural training she had received the previous year to prepare her for volunteer work in a Christian development agency. She tried to think of things in that training that would help her navigate these troubled waters.

Before joining the development agency, Beth had campaigned hard for women's rights in her New England college. Now, the male head of the village in which she was working had used money from her women's gardening project to buy more wives (women who would wind up being used almost as slaves!).

Beth had arrived in Kabala one year earlier at the end of the dry season, determined to get her agricultural cooperative program off the ground within the first year. She worked at organizing the women of the village, helping them develop programs that would improve their conditions. These programs included maternity and child care, health, nutrition, basic education, and vegetable gardening. Beth's particular interest was the gardening project. Her goal was that the women could use it to earn a little money on their own, money they could use to purchase clothing, toiletries, and other personal and family items. That would give them a sense of dignity and independence.

Under Beth's guidance, the women planted onion patches in unused land around the village. The project went well through the rainy season. Meetings with tribal leaders and with the women to distribute the food, money, tools, and seeds took a toll on Beth's energy level. However, when the onions sprouted on time at the end of the rains, she felt reinvigorated.

During her first months in Sierra Leone Beth had worked at learning the Koronko language by staying in the village for two and three days at a time. While there she lived in the house of Abu, the village chief, and his wife, Isatu. Beth ran weekly meetings with the women of the village where they discussed baby formula problems and lack of medical facilities as well as local gossip. Isatu spoke often about using their cooperative earnings for a health center for a midwife.

Beth learned to respect and love these people. She was especially impressed with the way the women worked so hard without complaining. Isatu had shown Beth all kinds of things about village life, including how to cook over an open fire. Despite their cultural differences and struggles with the language, Beth and Isatu became fast friends. Chief Abu even joked that Beth was one of his wives.

Throughout the year, the chief had been friendly to Beth. He even contributed his own male laborers for three days during the heaviest work of her garden project. Beth saw that gesture as a sign of the chief's interest in the progress of women's rights. She knew, of course, that Chief Abu Bakar was not one to be taken lightly. He had not been pleased with a rice project run by another development agency.

Beth had been away from the village for two weeks to attend a conference on "Women in Development" when she received a barely legible letter from Isatu. It said that Abu had hired laborers to harvest the women's onion crop before it was even fully grown. Isatu wrote that Abu had sold the onions and was using the money to buy two new wives. Isatu was furious, raising the possibility that Beth had tricked her and the other women and had planned the whole scheme for Abu's benefit. Beth quickly wrote Isatu to say that she would return right away and to ask that a meeting be organized to talk about the problem.

As Beth's motorcycle carried her toward the village that day, she wondered what she should do. With whom should she identify? If she refuted the charges of consorting with the chief and sided totally with the women, she might not be able to continue her work in the village. If, however, she sided with the chief, the women might quit cooperating with her. Possibly, Beth thought, she could try being a diplomat and not take sides. However, she knew that might just infuriate both parties.

As Beth rode her motorcycle up that last hill, sweat poured down her forehead. She was perspiring partly from the hundred-degree heat and partly because of what she was about to face.

  1. What should Beth do now?
  2. Did she ignore or misunderstand some important cues?
  3. If we could back up the calendar, what advice would you give to Beth in the months prior to this event?
  4. Were there ways that Beth might have made the culture her ally rather than something to struggle against?

This case study appeared in its original form in Case Studies in Missions, edited by Paul and Frances Hiebert, Baker Book House. Edited and used with permission. This case study may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35¢ fee per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

    -- Howard Culbertson,


Promoters and organizers of agricultural cooperatives face several challenges when working cross-culturally:

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