Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Women who feed the world - Mothers of the Soil

Here is an article I wrote for the Indian magazine The Caravan about an innovative collaboration between Oxfam and the popular Tanzanian reality TV show Maisha Plus.

The idea was to celebrate the women who grow most of the food in developing countries and show viewers how important they are, how resourceful and creative they are, and how hard they work. 

I spent a week in the reality TV village, getting to know the 14 finalists and some of the young people, and watching them going about their daily activities. We would sit on mats they had woven and they would tell me their stories, which my lovely translator Abigail-Precious Ambweni, translated. I loved it!  Their stories moved me, inspired me, made me angry, made me happy – and I am sure the million of viewers who watched the show at night felt the same way.

Studies have shown that the best way to cut hunger in the world is to invest in women who farm small plots and ensure they have the same rights and access to resources as men. So let's do it!

Mothers of the Soil


By Veronique Mistiaen | 1 February 2013

The latest season of Maisha Plus gave young contestants and viewers a taste of what women in Tanzania and across Africa go through to put food on the table. COURTESY SVEN TORFIN / OXFAM

THE LATE-AFTERNOON SUN bathed the small village in soft, golden light. With thatched huts scattered among palm trees, vegetable gardens, a well, and scrawny chickens scurrying about, it was the quintessential rural African scene. But a closer inspection revealed cables half-buried in the grey sand, and cameras hidden behind palm trees and shrubs.

We were in a make-believe village, built from scratch at a secret location in the Pwani region of Tanzania. The village was the set for Maisha Plus, a Big Brother-type television show, whose latest season was produced in collaboration with the international development charity Oxfam, and ran from October to December last year. Twenty-five young men and women from cities were competing in a standard ‘survival’ format show, but this season the show also had a special segment in which 14 women who farm small plots of land in rural Tanzania competed for the title of “Mama Shujaa Wa Chakula” (Female Food Hero). This segment was an extension of a show Oxfam had introduced the  previous year.

Oxfam estimates that their female food heroes show reached 25 million Tanzanians in 2011, through television, as well as through discussions on radio, social media and newspapers—even in remote villages, people gather at night in community centres to watch it. “The idea behind the show is to give young contestants and millions of viewers a taste of what women in Tanzania and across Africa go through to put food on their tables with limited resources and in the face of enormous challenges,” said Mwanahamisi Salimu, a coordinator with Oxfam. “It is an opportunity to push for them to have access to the same rights and resources as their male counterparts, and a way to scale up the voices of women farmers.”

The women contestants arrived in the village first, and stayed for two weeks, performing the tasks they would in their own daily lives—clearing land, planting vegetables, milking goats, fetching water, cooking cassava and building chicken coops. The young people, who joined the women at the end of the women’s stay, learned these skills from them over a week, before being left to survive on their own for the next eight weeks. Viewers voted winners from both groups, influenced as much by the contestants’ performance of the tasks as by their personalities and life stories.

In Tanzania, as in many African countries, women produce much of the food that feeds people. Few, however, own the land they farm or enjoy the same rights as men. In a pre-show interview to Oxfam and Maisha Plus, Tatu Abdi, a contestant from the Tanga region said, “Women are treated as tractors, but they have to treat their husbands like angels.”

The 14 women on the show were selected from among more than 7,000 applicants from across the country, and were in many ways typical of the millions of women who farm small plots of land. But the participants were also chosen for their unique life experiences and the challenges they had overcome. Eline Olotu Orio from the Kilimanjaro region, for example, managed to fight her community’s deep-seated patriarchal tradition and acquire a piece of land when she was only 20 years old. Nearly two decades later, this land supports her family, and Orio continues to improve her farm with innovative ideas—among these is a metal granary to protect her produce from the region’s scourge of rodents, which can eat up as much as 30 percent of a farmer’s crops. Another contestant, Emiliana Aligaesha from the Kagera region, couldn’t feed her nine children on her primary-school teacher’s salary, and so turned to agriculture. She now grows coffee, banana, beans and maize, and supplies quality seedlings to other villagers. Dorah Myinga from the Southern Highlands took a loan to buy a tractor—a step unheard of for a woman, let alone a widow. She now tends her 12-acre farm, and also earns money by renting her tractor out to other villagers.

To prepare for the show, a team from Oxfam and Maisha Plus spent a month criss-crossing the country to document the lives of these and other finalists. In the process, they uncovered some of the issues that hinder women’s progress: they often don’t own the land they work on, they struggle to get fair access to markets, they lack proper training and adequate tools, and they often face threats of violence. In almost all the villages, women complained that they were the ones seeding, planting, weeding and ploughing crops; but when harvest time came, men took over—sometimes selling the crops and keeping all the profits. In Orio’s village, women talked of a horrifying “season of rape”—a time when maize has grown so tall that some men hide in the fields, and attack, rape and even kill women. “The weeding season has become the raping season,” said one woman from the village during an open forum with Oxfam. “Since no men tend to the farms and women’s farms are very far from villages, rapists take advantage of that. We buried a victim a couple of weeks ago.”

From time to time in the course of filming the show, experts visited the women in the Maisha Plus village and taught them about leadership, agronomy, HIV/AIDS, bookkeeping, finance, gender violence, women’s rights and climate change—thus also allowing the show’s viewers to pick up information on these subjects. “I didn’t know women could own their land,” said Abdi after a training session on women’s rights, in which she learned about Tanzania’s Village Land Act of 1999. It’s a right of which most women are unaware. “That is huge. I want to learn more,” Abdi added.

Women also learned from each other, sharing knowledge such as how to build a clay oven using minimal quantities of wood, making bricks, building without nails, and “fattening” the soil with ash, food waste and leaves.

At the end of the women’s stay, the young people from the city arrived. They were searched for mobile phones, cigarettes and other contraband before being sent to the mud-walled huts they would share over the following weeks. The younger group looked incongruous with their suitcases, make-up and city clothes, but they soon blended in, injecting life, energy and laughter into the little village.

The youngsters began to pick up the daily tasks the women had undertaken, such as growing maize and vegetables, setting up food stalls, doing odd jobs around the village, rearing goats and chickens, preparing meals and collecting water. Over the first few days, the women took the young people under their wing, providing food, support and expertise. The youngsters were then left on their own, to survive for eight weeks on a budget of $20.

Swaumu Mgeni Shabani, a poised 20-year-old who works as a hairdresser in Dar Es Salaam, said she wasn’t daunted by the prospect of surviving in the village. “I knew what to expect, and I’ve visited my grandmother in her village. It’s good to have to adapt to various environments. I’ll survive,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve already cleared my plot and prepared the soil. I have planted pumpkin seeds and legumes, cassava and watermelon.”

Throughout the show, viewers were invited to vote by cellphone text messages for the women and the young novices. Two weeks after they first reached the village, it was the day of the women’s grand finale. In a colourful ceremony broadcast live on national television, Martha Mwasu Waziri from Dodoma in central Tanzania was crowned Mama Shujaa wa Chakula 2012 to much cheering in the Maisha Plus village. In her acceptance speech, Waziri, who won US$ 6,300, said that she wanted to turn her farm, which she had reclaimed from unwanted wasteland, into a demonstration farm to show others what can be achieved.

Other finalists said they would share what they learned in the village with people in their home regions. “I learned so much here and that is more important to me than winning the competition,” said Mary Kamwaka Maumbi from the Rukwa region. “I’ve learned how to do a crop calendar, when to start breeding my pigs and when to inoculate them, how to get my produce to the market and what to do with my money. I’ll put everything into practice and will show others how to do it. It will have an impact on my whole village.”

Later, as the women prepared to leave the village, one of the bubbliest youngsters, Mubarak Makame Haji, a 24-year-old barber from Zanzibar who was raised by his grandparents after his mother died in childbirth, suddenly grew pensive. “This is real village life, not reality TV,” Haji said. “Watching these women here, living their normal lives, has opened my eyes. They represent millions of women out there in the countryside. And they make me think of my own mother. That’s the life she must have lived.

Interviews with the women and young people were translated by Abigail-Precious Ambweni.
Veronique Mistiaen is a London-based award-winning journalist writing about social and humanitarian issues, development, human rights and the environment.

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