Challenging Gender Norms, One Garlic Clove at a Time: Mary James

15Jan 2020
The Guardian
Challenging Gender Norms, One Garlic Clove at a Time: Mary James

MARY James arrives earlier than anyone else to the Bashay Agricultural Marketing Cooperative Society (AMCOS) building. Warehouse is a better word to describe the structure.

Its tall, beige support beams are met by grand aluminum roofing. A black gate guards the entrance and she slides it open slowly. Inside is dim, the windows only allowing a small amount of natural light to enter. Maroon metal baskets fill half the football field-sized room, each one about 10 feet tall. There are thousands of garlic heads in every container. Women from around the Bashay ward, or sparsely populated denomination of Mbulu district, are expected for a training on how to add value to garlic and pumpkin.

Mary is immediately busy organizing the participants and phoning those not there to make sure their transportation to the venue is secure. Before the National Network of Farmers' Groups in Tanzania (MVIWATA ) and Sokoine University Graduate Entrepreneurs Cooperative (SUGECO) team — two Tanzanian agricultural NGOs focused on farmer mobilization and technological innovation, respectively — step out of their car, Mary is walking over to greet them.

Her smile radiates through the field team and makes them forget the cold and rainy weather that is uncharacteristic for October in the mountainous district.

Calmly, she ushers the team inside to set up chart paper for the theoretical portion of the session. I find myself nervous to interrupt Mary who seems so preoccupied, but her demeanor is far too inviting to invoke feelings of unwelcome. Women begin to arrive and, as they do, Mary engages each of them in conversation. Though brief in nature, her attention is never divided. Some women come with a concerned question or two, but in short order find reassurance with just a few words from their matron leader.

To the untrained observer Mary might be a simple farmer doing her part to secure nutrition and income for her family. But to many in the wards of Bashay and Mbulu Town, the 34-year-old is the most important leader in the greater Mbulu District.

At the age of 20 Mary joined MVIWATA and since then has grown into a confident young woman who holds several roles on local councils; from member to secretary to treasurer to chairperson.

Her hard-earned status is challenging the gender confines prescribed to most Tanzanian women, and the journey to this point was just that — challenging and hard-earned.

Mary was in her early teens when one day her father fell ill and was not able to attend the local Village Community Bank or VICOBA meeting. He asked her to go in his stead. With each passing appearance, she grew more comfortable, offering new ideas and eventually earning her the spot of treasurer in the group.

Soon after this promotion, she would become the chairperson of the MVIWATA Bashay network — a position of great stature among villagers. Mary’s leadership became more widely recognized and she was elected to the position of secretary for Bashay’s local beekeeping group. From here she became a member ofMbulu District and Mbulu Town Councils where the community’s economic and social issues are discussed.

“These women have lost hope for a better life.” Mary states grimly about the training’s participants.

It’s a common sentiment among farmers: bad seeds, lack of water, inconsistent customers, all contributing to discouragement. But agriculture is the backbone of Tanzanian livelihood, and it takes a seasoned veteran, like Mary, to show prospective farmers that they can be successful — an undertaking she has pursued relentlessly.

“Mary is a strong MVIWATA leader who has capacity and the ability to inspire many young women in the Bashay and Mbulu committees. We are lucky to have her.” said Donald Laizer, MVIWATA Field Officer and long time colleague and friend of Mary.

She attends value addition trainings regularly for a self-refresher on techniques, but has also come to provide encouragement for the local women, most of whom are in their late 40s to 50s, and most of whom have little education or vocational training. Over the four day session, Bashay women will learn how to target customers, market garlic, process garlic into paste, powder, and oil, as well as how to make chapati and mandazi — typical Tanzanian breakfast foods — from pumpkin puree.

“(The women) are getting inspired by the possibilities the training is opening them up to.” Mary said with a tone of elevated excitement, as she describes forming the small garlic group following the training.

Mary, herself — the VICOBA Treasurer, the Beekeeping Group Secretary, the Mbulu District and Town Council Member, the MVIWATA Chairperson — is excited to get back to practicing her agricultural craft. Yes, Mary farms maize, sunflower, beans, and, of course, garlic. A job that requires constant monitoring, farming is no walk in the park. Amongst the culprits of discouragement (water insecurity, faulty seeds, inconsistent business) the underlying stress that farming is often a gamble proves the biggest burden of all.

Mary has never been deterred by this uncertainty, but still relies on farming as income. All her leadership roles are voluntary after all.

The Bashay value addition training was funded by Uniterra, MVIWATA’s Canadian partner NGO, and featured a gender awareness component led by volunteers Laure Côté-Rabel and Audrey Gagné-Breton who are both supported by Canadian government. One of the activities challenged the participants to reconsider their perceptions of traditional gender roles at home and in the workplace.

“We hope that it will generate discussions and debates in [their] communities between men and women, and increase the level of confidence of women as leaders.” Laure said. Deeply-rooted cultural norms, however, aren’t changed overnight. It takes years of exercises like these to chip away at issues like this. Laure, along with myself and other Uniterra volunteers, work with local organizations to promote the inclusion of youth and women in their activities.

These conversations are difficult to indulge in a society dominated by patriarchy. It takes people like Mary to demonstrate young girls can break out of that cycle by persevering and challenging prescribed day-to-day activities.

“I am proud of where I’ve come, and I feel like I deserve it.” Mary said with finality.

The writer is a Youth Engagement Officer in Babati Town for Uniterra's youth & gender inclusion project, from Toronto, Canada

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