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My Female Food Heroes diary – part 1

I’m part of a team travelling around Tanzania to meet the 15 finalists of Female Food Hero 2012. I’m constantly amazed by the women’s innovation, determination and how they have overcome so many challenges to produce the food that we all eat. These women are true heroes to me, and I hope to all of us.

Eline: a symbol of possibilities

After meeting Tatu in Tanga, we headed north. The weather near Mount Kilimanjaro was cloudy and chilly, but the reception we got in Sanya Juu village was warm and radiant. The village, home to Eline Olotu Orio, is widely known for its good climate and fertile soils that support agriculture. But it is usually women who work the fields, which are owned by their husbands or other men.

Eline is a married mother of five. On an acre of farmland she grows maize, beans, sunflowers, bananas and avocadoes. She also keeps a cow, two goats and 30 chickens – selling the chicks and eating the chickens. All fairly typical, except that Eline’s success started with something very unusual for a woman in Tanzania. Aged 20, she bought her own land.

“It was abnormal for a young girl to own land. I wasn’t trying to challenge male domination or our cultural systems, but I knew my father didn’t have land, and even if he had it I knew I would not inherit a thing.”

Eline using water from pump she bought to irrigate during dry months. Photo: Oxfam
Eline's irrigation pump

Nearly two decades later, the land is a home for Eline, her husband and their children – and is also their primary source of livelihood.

With great initiative and determination, Eline has taken numerous steps to improve her production. Many villages face a big problem from rodents and farmers often lose up to 30 percent of their harvested crops – so Eline set up an innovative metal granary to protect her produce. This year a lack of rain has threatened her harvest – so Eline has invested in two irrigation machines.

We had an open discussion forum in the village, where women talked about the challenges they face, such as shortages of land due to land grabbing; population pressure; lack of farming equipment; and a lack of capital. One stunning revelation was a “season of rape” – which reportedly takes place when the maize has grown tall, creating a place for rapists to hide and attack women.

“The weeding season has become a raping season,” said Reminisia, one of the participants. “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.”

The challenges paint a bleak picture, yet Eline’s determination and innovation shines through. She has always looked for what is possible, rather than accepting defeat or bowing to cultural norms that held her back, and that’s why she’s been selected as a finalist.

Onwards to the Mountain of God

Just between the Oldonyo Lengai Mountain (“Mountain of God”) and Lake Natron, lies Engaresero village. Right in the middle of the Ngorongoro national park, tourists come to the region to enjoy the sight of giraffes, zebras and many other wild animals.

This remote Maasai village is also home to Neema Linkay, a 40-year-old widow. Ten years ago she lost her husband to kidney damage. After his death, his relatives took everything he owned, leaving Neema with nothing.

Women in Ngorongoro. Photo: Maisha Plus
Women in Ngorongoro

Striving to survive, she started a retail business, bringing a relatively good income of 6–15,000 Tanzanian shillings a day ($3.8 – $9.5 at current exchange rates). She then traded some of the supplies from her shop in exchange for a cow and four sheep. Today she’s managed to increase her livestock to seven cows and 15 sheep. At one point she owned 14 cows, but severe drought two years ago depleted her herd.

“When my husband died, everything went with him,” she explained to me. “I had to start from scratch. It was really hard, but I stood for my family with courage and confidence. I have seen and experienced a lot in this life. I sent my daughter to a boarding school because I don’t want this experience for her.”

At a public forum held to let women air their voices, common issues that cropped up for women food producers included the inequalities in land ownership; lack of telephone and communication infrastructure; unequal division of labour; and limited access to markets.

“We cultivate various crops but our produce has no reliable market,” said Rose Ezekiel, a local farmer. “Therefore, we either sell at a very low price or retain the produce to rot in granaries.”

More than 100 people, mostly women, attended the forum, and we noticed that only about 10 percent could read or write. Most women were unable to fill in a questionnaire. Most could not speak or understand Kiswahili, the national language. Some men had learnt Kiswahili through visits to main towns – an opportunity most women lack due to their burden of work in the village.

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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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