Crossing the Indian Ocean by boat, we landed on the island of Zanzibar to meet two more Female Food Hero finalists.
“They said I was losing my mind”
Halima Haji Omar lives on the northern tip of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar. After finishing secondary school she wanted to start farming on her parents’ land, a decision that caused conflict in her family.
“I wanted to use my mother’s land but relatives questioned my right over it,” Halima told me. “I was female and there were male children who (they said) needed it the most.”
But Halima persevered and her farm has since expanded from a small one-acre plot to five acres, on which she grows many crops including cassava, sweet potato and paddy. After losing her husband in 2005, Halima bought a new piece of land, enrolled in a local animal husbandry training programme, and began keeping cattle as well. Starting with two cows she now unbelievably has 16, from which she gets milk and manure. She also has 105 chickens.
Most people in Zanzibar are Muslims and traditionally women like Halima are expected to limit her activities to the homestead – but her decision to keep cattle meant she often had to go out to graze them. She began to spend hours in the jungle with her cows, which drew attention from local men.
“When I started keeping cattle and spending several hours grazing, they said I was losing my mind,” she recalls. “Now a couple of women have emulated my efforts – especially after they saw I built this house!”
The new house is one of several results of Halima’s hard work. She says that keeping livestock can help women lift themselves out of poverty – they provide milk for children, they can be sold to generate cash, and the manure can supplement or replace artificial fertilizers which are becoming increasingly unaffordable.
Halima urged members of the community to put more trust in women as capable individuals, and to shun the stereotypes that undermine women’s role in our society.
“They thought I couldn’t manage”
Maryam Abdallah Suleiman, 40, is a widow with five children. As a child she attended primary school for three years, until her parents could no longer afford the fees and brought her back home. Later, her parents decided to marry her off. Like most Zanzibar families, the women were expected to stay at home.
Maryam took the unusual step of starting her own farm. “In those days there were not many women farmers in our village,” she says. “When I informed my husband about my decision to branch into farming, he questioned my ability and thought I could not manage.”
She’s never received any formal training on farming or animal husbandry, but that has not stopped her becoming successful. Her determination and perseverance has helped her to learn from other farmers. Maryam cultivates three acres of farmland, and keeps 100 chickens and four cows. She grows several crops, including millet, cassava, banana and tomatoes.
With the profits from her farm, Maryam has been able to feed her children and build a new house. But she has also challenged traditions and a culture where women have been confined to the house.
In discussions all over Tanzania the issue of land ownership has come up again and again. Maryam says that things are changing for the better, but that men still predominantly control land. She told me that a woman may now inherit land from her parents, but it is usually a smaller piece than the male children get.
The issue of religious law was also raised. One villager said, “In Zanzibar, land tenure is highly influenced by religious law. Actually, the religious law gives women the right to own land – the problem is that people don’t really follow what that law instructs.”
Challenges of a changing climate
Like many of the women I’ve met, both Halima and Maryam say their number one challenge is climate change. Halima says unpredictable weather threatens her crops and her cattle, and Maryam says one of the biggest challenges for farmers in Zanzibar is a lack of water. Irrigation equipment is expensive – Halima plans to start a new business to raise funds.
Reliance on rain-fed agriculture leaves their annual investment in agriculture at the mercy of highly unpredictable weather. I asked Maryam if the challenges discourage her: “Not at all. For me agriculture means life. I must persevere.” It is this kind of spirit that makes the Female Food Heroes stand out.