They called her mad and laughed at her, but she kept going…
Everywhere I travel in Tanzania I meet women who work the land, but are unable to own or inherit it because of cultural restrictions, which mean it’s always men who own the land. In Kondoa district in Dodoma I met a remarkable woman, Sister Martha Waziri, who was determined to change this. Her enterprise has inspired a village and even brought hope for orphans.
Now 45 years old, Martha began her campaign to reclaim land in 1984. As a young woman she began her calling in the Catholic church, enrolling in Catholic schools but forced to drop out three times due to ill health. Disheartened and landless, and with no hope of inheriting land from her parents, she saw a possibility to claim a wide sand-ridden seasonal furrow on the border of her village.
The land was completely barren and none of the men wanted it. But not everyone shared 17-year-old Martha’s vision, and when she asked the local authority if she could use it, they laughed at her.
“I became an object of ridicule to other villagers, and when my first attempt to reclaim land failed it was a bonus to them,” she recalls.
Eventually though, she managed to claim 18 acres of that land. As both a farmer and a pastoralist, she now cultivates 9.5 acres of this land, growing sugarcane, maize, sweet potatoes, cassava, bananas, and a variety of beans. She also rears eight goats and 26 chickens.
She has reaped the economic benefits of her initiative, but has also become a beacon of change in the village. More than 300 villagers, organized into five groups, have now emulated her.
Donasian Kassian, a fellow villager, told me: “When we joined Sister Martha in reclaiming sand-ridden furrows, people dubbed us mad. But 28 years ago this place was a huge useless canal. Today we eat sugarcanes, maize and beans from this land.”
Following her religious calling, Sister Martha has supported 12 orphans and vulnerable youth over the years. Her farms have secured food for her extended family and generated a reliable income to build 10 rooms that the orphans can call home, and from where they can pursue their dreams.
Sister Martha’s success has not been without challenges. She says her first experience of climatic changes was when her fishpond dried up as water levels in the area decreased. She says the land has become increasingly dry, affecting her banana farm most of all.
Sister Martha is not an agro-science expert. She’s not an intellectual and she doesn’t use high-tech machines. But this extraordinary woman from an ordinary rural community has made a substantial contribution to conserve her environment and made a remarkable difference in the lives of her fellow villagers. I cannot acknowledge her in any better way than to call her a Female Food Hero.
“I knew there could be great wealth in farming”
Arriving in Karagwe, in Kagera region, our mobile phones welcomed us to “Rwanda”. Laughing, we confirmed we were still in Tanzania – we were just 10 kilometres inside the border with Rwanda. Here the fertile valleys and climate are ideal for growing coffee, as well as maize, beans and bananas.
Amid the hills – which reminded me of Kigali, the Rwandan capital built on hills – I met 69 year old Elimiliana Aligaesha, a widow, a farmer and a livestock keeper.
Widowed in 1992, Emiliana’s meagre salary as a primary school teacher was not enough to make ends meet. So she ventured into agriculture and, after a few years, realized that farming helped her pay the bills better than teaching, and she opted for early retirement.
“I wouldn’t be here if I was still a teacher,” she told me. “I knew there is a great wealth in farming. I was determined to see my kids in university but I couldn’t see my teacher’s salary doing that.”
Now her nine children have all been put through college. Despite her lack of formal agricultural training, villagers and local leaders declare Emiliana’s farm to be an exemplary one – well kept and with rich produce.
“My mother told me: If one goes to the farm and finds weeds choking the banana trees, then harvests a banana and proceeds with cooking, one should consider herself a thief. I have always remembered this principle,” she says.
As well as growing coffee bananas, beans and maize, Emiliana owns six cows and also supplies quality seedlings to other villagers. Her efforts were recognized before she was declared a Female Food Hero, and she was once granted a trip to Ireland and the United Kingdom, where she got an opportunity to speak and learn. She has become a kind of researcher in the village, testing out new agricultural techniques for others to follow.
Speaking to other women in the village, they saluted Emiliana`s efforts and determination, but revealed the widespread gender inequality with regard to participation in agriculture and ownership of produce.
“Coffee is a major commercial crop here and frankly, men own its produce since it pays the most,” Musanif Adam Mutabazi told me.
Despite the fertile land, villagers told me of challenges such as the lack of reliable markets, climate change, and a shortage of farming equipment. Although the inequality in land ownership is still dominant, steps are being taken to rectify the situation. Villagers promisingly argue that things are changing for the better, and they attribute that change to increased literacy and education in the area, and a positive intervention by the state – for example, the government is enacting laws that guide divorce and inheritance.