WFP/Mackenzie Rollins

Empower a Woman, Feed a Generation

In rural Tanzania, a matriarch named Mariam is feeding her family’s dreams for a better future

Each evening before sunset, Mariam gathers her family on a straw mat outside her red brick home in rural Tanzania to enjoy a dinner of ugali, a traditional maize porridge, along with other locally grown crops like spinach, rice and beans.

Sitting alongside her husband, three children and four grandchildren, Mariam describes the pride she takes in giving them the nutrition they need to stay healthy and strong.

“Watching my family eat until they’re full means I’m a good cook,” she explains. “And it makes me feel happy in my heart.”

Her family’s full bellies also attest to Mariam’s skills as a farmer. Most of the food they consume comes from their small plot of land in Tanzania’s Mkalama district, a 12-hour drive from Dar es Salaam, the nation’s bustling capital. Since she was a child, Mariam has harvested food from the region’s red clay soil, growing crops like corn, sunflowers and peanuts.

WFP/Tala Loubieh

For the first time in her life, Mariam has recently moved beyond subsistence farming. More than that, she has become one of the most successful farmers in the area, harvesting almost twice as much food as the average family.

Thanks to additional income from selling her surplus crops, Mariam paid for the materials and construction of a new brick home for herself, a house for her eldest son and a stand-alone kitchen where she stores excess harvest. In a rural village where most homes are built of mud, sticks and plastic tarps, her new dwellings stand apart.

She was also able to purchase a cart that she now rents to her neighbors for additional income.

WFP/Mackenzie Rollins

But Mariam is a rare success story. More than half of the world’s 805 million chronically undernourished people are small farmers confined to degraded land. Without access to the most basic resources — stable markets, reliable electricity or even good seeds — these farmers are doomed for failure and sometimes famine. Without passable roads to transport food or accessible water sources when drought occurs, farmers can’t succeed.

That’s where the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) comes in. By providing training to small farmers as well as basic tools like mechanical sifters, tractors, warehouses and irrigation canals, WFP is equipping women like Mariam with the most basic tool of survival and success: Good nutrition.

Empowering women like Mariam is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and hunger. In fact, the world could reduce the number of hungry people by an estimated 150 million if female farmers like Mariam had the same access to resources and tools as men do.

WFP/Mackenzie Rollins
Mariam stands with her daughter, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren in front of their new brick home in rural Tanzania.

Right now across the globe, humanitarian organizations like WFP are working with millions of mothers like Mariam who are protecting themselves and their families from hunger.

Being able to put food on the table is especially important because Mariam’s eldest daughter is expecting her second child. During this critical window of time — from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday — access to proper nutrition will shape that child’s fate, determining everything from mental capacity and physical development to lifetime earnings and resilience to infection or disease.

This is one of the most crucial lessons WFP staffers are working to teach matriarchs like Mariam.

The entrance to Mariam’s new brick house, built using profits from surplus crops sold at a local markets.
WFP/Mackenzie Rollins
The entrance to Mariam’s new brick house, built using profits from surplus crops sold at a local markets.

To make sure Mariam’s daughter is getting the right nutrients to stay healthy throughout her pregnancy, WFP is providing prenatal supplements and information about breastfeeding, sanitation and dietary diversity — three of the most important ways mothers can protect their children from hunger. And when Mariam’s granddaughter or grandson is born, local volunteers for WFP will regularly check up to make sure the baby is getting all the nutrients needed to thrive.

Over a small fire in her family’s courtyard, Mariam uses a hand-carved wooden ladle to stir a bubbling pot of wali na maharage, or rice and beans in Swahili. A grove of acacia trees surrounding the courtyard sways in the evening breeze, casting shadows all around them.

This is Mariam’s favorite time of day, when her work in the fields and at the market is finished and she can relax at home with her children and grandchildren.

Nearby, Mariam’s granddaughter — a curious toddler in a flowery blue dress — gets too close to one of the family’s guinea fowl, who reacts with a sudden flurry of feathers and claws. The entire family bursts into peals of laughter while the child reacts by bursting into tears. Mariam watches as her daughter scoops the frightened child into her lap and begins to soothe her. Once again, a mother quickly saves the day.

When asked why empowering women like her is so important, Mariam’s response is simple.

“Because women,” she says with a smile, “are the heart of the family.”

WFP/Mackenzie Rollins

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