The celebrity farmer from Ukerewe

By Michael Igoe 30 November 2015

Bahati Muriga, a 40-year-old widow and mother of three, grows sugar cane, sweet potatoes, cassava and maize on her farm in Tanzania. Photo by: Oxfam / Kwetu Studios

Bahati Muriga, a 40-year-old widow and mother of three, grows sugar cane, sweet potatoes, cassava and maize on her farm in Tanzania, not far from where Lake Victoria laps at the shoreline of Ukerewe, the largest island in Africa’s largest lake.

Muriga has lived on Ukerewe her entire life, and she’s cultivated crops there since she first began helping her mother as a child. Now, things are changing.

“When I was a child, we experienced a lot of rainfall, but now we have a scarcity of rainfall,” Muriga said through a translator. “The season has changed now.”

She described a shift in seasonal precipitation. Rains, which used to begin in September and end in January, currently don’t begin until October and often end in December. That shorter growing season has meant fewer crops in some cases. In others, it’s meant different crops. When Muriga was a child, cassava was Ukerewe’s staple. But cassava, a starchy root native to South America, requires frequent watering. As rainfall has grown less consistent, many people have moved on to other options.

Now, everyone on Ukerewe is growing maize, Muriga said, though they never used to.

Swapping one crop for a more climate-tolerant one is an adaptive response to climate impacts, but it comes with a cost. Ukerewe’s citizens grew up with cassava. They use it to make ugali, a doughlike dish at the center of many Tanzanian meals. Ugali made from maize flour has an unfamiliar — and not always appreciated — consistency, Muriga said. People in Ukerewe prefer the cassava-based variety.

“Cassava is very smooth,” Muriga said. “It looks like baking flour.”

That might seem a relatively small price to pay, but it’s a circumstance that has raised some concerns about food security and inequality. People perceive Ukerewe to be especially susceptible to climate change impacts, in part because of the seasonal shifts Muriga described and in part because of crowding and other land use changes on the island. As a result, outsiders see an opportunity to import crops to the island’s residents, she said.

Food traders also know that Ukerewe’s inhabitants prefer cassava when they can get it and those from some of the neighboring regions are benefiting from the cassava market that has sprouted up on Ukerewe, Muriga said. She worries that the island’s residents are no longer able to produce enough food of the right variety to feed themselves — that Ukerewe may not be as self-sufficient and food secure as it’s been in the past.

The changes to the island’s climate are not uniform, Muriga said. In some parts of Ukerewe, farmers still receive the rains they need to grow traditional crops. Land use changes and in-migration from other parts of Tanzania complicate the natural resources picture. The island has grown more crowded and forests have been depleted. Residents living closer to the island’s interior experience more water stress than those close to shore as more land has fallen under cultivation. Perhaps less rain is falling less consistently, but so have a wide variety of other ecosystem services been strained by growing demand and development.

These changes have imparted a lesson that will likely be many times repeated as the climate transforms in ways that affect people’s lifestyles and livelihoods: Those with resources will have a better chance of adapting to a new climate than those without resources.

On Ukerewe, that has meant that people with the money and labor power to invest in their farms have actually benefited from the transition from cassava to maize, which is a short-term crop, Muriga said.

“They have tractors that can help them yield a lot of maize and make a lot of money,” she said. “For those without resources, the same challenges still apply in terms of access to seeds, access to land,” she added.

On Ukerewe, as in many places, the process of adapting rural livelihoods to climate change — or not — will be managed by women. Most of the island’s men spend their days pulling fish from Lake Victoria. That means women, assisted by their children and seasonal workers, manage the farms. Most families keep a small kitchen garden near the house and a larger farm elsewhere to grow market crops.

Muriga, whose husband died while she was pregnant, balances those responsibilities with both single motherhood as well as her role as a school headmistress.

The fact that she does so with an easygoing, friendly charm is part of what catapulted her to celebrity status in Tanzania.

Muriga found herself one of the 19 women selected by Oxfam International to participate in a Female Food Heroes reality TV show in Tanzania called Maisha Plus. The women competed for audience votes — and to be named “Mama Shujaa wa Chakula” — by contributing their skills to the construction of a sustainable ecovillage in rural Tanzania. Muriga received 10,000 votes and took home roughly $10,000 in prize money and equipment. She used the money to build her 7-acre farm on Ukerewe, and for an all-terrain vehicle to cut down on travel time, which she also rents to others on the island.

Oxfam’s Female Food Heroes serve as examples and inspiration for their communities — and they travel to raise awareness of the pressures rural livelihoods face. Devex spoke with Muriga at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa, where she accepted congratulations on the same stage as World Food Prize winner and BRAC Founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed.

People on Ukerewe don’t talk much about the meetings happening in Paris during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Muriga said.

“People say the climate has changed … but even the local government, they don’t connect it to [global] climate change as a concept,” she said. “Central government who is involved in the COP21 meetings doesn’t disseminate information to local governments or to government officials at local levels.”

A principle objective of these meetings is to determine how much and what kind of funding will be necessary to help communities like those on Ukerewe adapt to the impacts of climate change. Once delegates have returned home from Paris, plenty of work will remain for them to do in bridging those long distances, between international negotiation and local livelihoods.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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