Women take over above Morogoro

The steep slopes of the Uluguru mountains in the Tanzanian region Morogoro are certainly not ideal for farming, and even travelling up there in a four-wheel drive is quite adventurous. But once you reach Towelo Village halfway up, it is wonderful to meet the happy people and admire their fertile terraced slopes with plenty of produce. And then there is another surprise in store.

The work involved in getting all these slopes terraced, must have been enormous. The work was done by hand, not machines, and the soil was made more fertile with lots of compost. But the return for the villagers is quite impressive: all children of the village go to school near the bottom of the mountain, the people seem well nourished and the houses look solid and comfortable.

Most of the farmers of Towelo Village benefited from courses at an information and training centre for ecological agriculture in Morogoro. "Bustani ya Tushikamane" is Kisuaheli for Garden of Solidarity. The project, run by Janet Maro and supported by Biovision since 2009, also acts as an innovation platform for ecological farming; the project is a bridge between scientific research, well-founded knowledge and practical application.

Since 2009, farmers have been able to visit the demonstration garden and find out about ecological methods of pest control, compost production, erosion control and product marketing. In their training, the farmers learn how to apply this new knowledge on their own farms. In 2013, a 50‑hectare model farm was established outside the city where farmers can attend multi-day training courses on specific agricultural topics.

  • Director of the farmers’ training centre Janet Maro (in the middle) with the strong women of Towelo.
  • All children of the Towelo village go to school near the bottom of the mountain.
  • The terraced slopes in Morogoro.

Hadija Kibwana, the Chairperson of Towelo Village, made quite clear that her community benefitted enormously from the knowledge about ecological farming. With the terracing, they were able to stop the erosion of fertile soil during the rainy season and enriching the soil with compost and additional knowledge and technologies have increased their yields considerably.

But there was one other aspect that made this village unique. As visitors, we were a little surprised that we were met by five women and only one man. Were the men all at work, we asked.

This question was met with smiles. Then we were told, that the women had taken over the reign of the village some years ago. Women cultivate their own land, feed their families and sell their surpluses at market and are able to finance the school of their children and other necessities with that income. The men have their own plots to cultivate, but no longer have any say over the plots and the income of their wives.

“This is quite unique in Tanzania, probably even in much of East Africa,” Janet Maro, the founder and director of the farmers’ training centre said. “But it seems, that the people are very happy here – so it might be a model that could be copied elsewhere,” she added.

Janet Maro has two possible explanations for this unique and interesting development. For one, the Waluguru (the native tribe on the Uluguru mountains) are a matrilineal society (clan name and family name is passed through the mothers), this naturally makes the women more powerful as opposed to patrilineal society where the lineage is passed across the male. The women in matrilineal society own land and inherit land from their mothers.

A more practical explanation is that after experiencing problems with men who were not taking responsibility in the family (e.g. making sure there is food on the table, children are going to school), the women thought if they depend on the men who are not often available, the home would break and as a result they cultivate their plots and earn an income which is mostly spent on the family.

It was probably a mix of both explanations that transformed the community. Indeed, with gender equality being a big issue in East Africa, with the dominance of men often slowing or even preventing development, it might just need a total reversal before a real gender balance can be realised.