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Tanzania’s female food heroes transform the landscape

By Mwanahamisi Salimu
Sister Martha Waziri is one of 15 finalists in Oxfam's Female Food Hero contest in Tanzania. Photo: Oxfam

Launched in 2011 by  Oxfam’s GROW campaign and local partners, the Female Food Hero contest is raising the profile of women in places like Tanzania—where women grow, cook, and produce most of the country’s food, but are rarely publicly recognized for their accomplishments.

Last year thousands voted via mobile phones for the winners of Tanzania's national competition, whose stories were shared with about 25 million people via TV and the media. This year’s winners will also be determined by public voting, and will be announced on World Food Day, October 16.

Below, Oxfam’s Mwanahamisi Salimu profiles one of Tanzania’s 15 Female Food Hero finalists, Sister Martha Waziri. Read about the other finalists on Oxfam’s East Africa blog.

Everywhere I travel in Tanzania I meet women who work the land, but are unable to own or inherit it because of cultural restrictions. In Kondoa district in Dodoma I met a remarkable woman, Sister Martha Waziri, who was determined to change this.

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 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.