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“Women are treated as tractors”

Women at the Female Food Hero event in Lushoto. Photo: Oxfam
Female Food Heroes in Lushoto

Around 400kms north of Dar es Salaam we found ourselves in Tanga, a region renowned for its hospitality and cooking skills, and an important producer of fruits and vegetables. In the fertile Lushoto Mountains, where we enjoyed the naturally grown fresh food, we met Tatu Abdi, one of the 15 nominated finalists for the 2012 Female Food Hero competition.

Tatu, a 49-year-old mother of four children, has been a widow for eight years. She is a typically polite and caring mother, but her wisdom and courage – combined with her hard work – make her heroic.

She was raised in the Sambaa tradition where men own everything and women own nothing. It is common for men to have more than one wife – in fact it’s hard to find men in their 30s who have only one. In this culture, men allocate a small piece of land for the family and larger, more productive piece of land for themselves. This land is called Shamba la mzee (“husband’s farm”). Even the family land is allocated to the son rather than the mother, even though it is the women who spend their days working on it – that is, once they have finished working on their “husband’s farm”!

About 120 people gathered in Tatu’s village, and a Mama Shujaa wa Chakula (“Female Food Hero”) forum was held to discuss pressing issues facing women producers. A hot debate erupted as women courageously challenged patriarchal systems.

One man furiously declared to the crowd of women: “Yes, the land we allocate for the family is not productive, and it is true that we (men) own the best land. That is because we are the provider of the family and we know better what the family needs. We need to control the family’s wealth for fair distribution, and what is wrong with that? Because when we pass away we leave that land to the family”.

Tatu Abdi, one of 15 Female Food Hero 2012 finalists. Photo: Oxfam
Tatu Abdi

Tatu led the passionate response from the women: “How can you allocate land when you’re dead? And why should we wait for our husband to die before we own land?”

Another woman, Agnes, followed suit:

“Men are providers for the family? Since when? We have suffered abject poverty because women have been marginalised. We are celebrating all these achievements in our families because women have broken the bonds. We are out there now, working hard, paying for school fees and supporting our families.”

Tatu has personally tasted the bitter part of this culture. She was married at 20, as a second wife. Her life was not easy: “Women are treated as tractors, but they have to treat their husbands like angels.”

Raising a family of four was challenging, but her real struggles started when her husband died. Tatu was pushed off her husband’s land by his relatives. Her cow was taken, along with her savings of almost 600,000 Tanzanian Shillings ($383 at today’s exchange rate). She fought hard to reclaim her home and, after lots of negotiations with village leaders, she managed to regain half of her husband’s land – an impressive achievement.

Despite the confrontations she continued to share love, care and wisdom with her family, neighbours and community at large. She did not beg for help, but worked with others to deal with the challenges.

She got involved in a local development group with other women and received two goats. Even then the husband’s family tried to stop her bringing her goats onto the land. At this point, Tatu recalls, “I said to myself, I will fight hard and I wanted to prove everyone wrong. And today here I am, a Female Food Hero finalist. They couldn’t believe it, but yes, I made it, I am so happy.”

Starting with just two goats, Tatu now own eight goats, and passed on a further four to other widows in the area. She also owns four cows, 21 chickens, and a three-acre farm, on which she grows Irish potatoes, green peas, sugar cane, cabbage and more. From this she manages to ensure her family are food secure and have enough to eat, and earns a decent income which means she pays her children’s school fees and ensures the family gets the health care they need.

Tatu has only primary level education, but thanks to Oxfam she has attended five formal training events in agricultural production, entrepreneurship and modern livestock keeping. She is a community veterinarian, and plays an active role in local governance as a member of the local authority committee and the Village Land Committee.

Tatu is one of the 15 Female Food Hero finalists for 2012. We’ll bring you more information about the other finalists over the coming weeks, and make sure you look out for more information and vote for your favourite Female Food Hero food hero from the 1st to 16th October.

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Written by Mwanahamisi Salimu

Mwanahamisi Salimu

Mwanahamisi is the Tanzania coordinator of Oxfam's GROW campaign for a fairer food system

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