First Person

The reality behind the reality show that puts women farmers in the spotlight

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Run! A treasure hunt—with a tree-planting task at the end—fired up Oxfam's Female Food Hero contestants as they raced through Kisanga looking for clues. The EATV crew ran after them. Three of the conestants, in beige T shirts, stopped to ask the villager in the red scarf about one of the clues. Answer in hand, they took off. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

In Tanzania, a popular TV show is raising the stature of women farmers and giving the rest of us a new way of understanding what it means to be strong—and beautiful.

I was in the village of Kisanga a few days ago racing around after a team of 15 highly energetic  women who are participating in the fifth season of Tanzania’s internationally-recognized Female Food Hero reality TV show—known locally by the much more appealing name, Mama Shujaa wa Chakula.

And, truly, I was racing. These women move.

It’s not just because they’re competing for a first-place prize that could win them 20 million Tanzanian shillings—an $11,000 fortune in a country that ranks 159th of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. No, I realized their energy came from a place even deeper than competitive drive. It’s who they are: strong women farmers not afraid of sweat and hard physical work, women who admire muscle and stamina, women comfortable in their own powerful bodies.

All of that became instantly clear when I watched them take to the field for a game from their childhoods, “rede”—sort of like dodge ball—played with a homemade ball of wadded plastic bags wrapped with string.

Between the ages of 19 and 62, every mama out there threw herself into the game with a gusto I don’t think women here in the US could easily muster: we’re too saddled by cultural baggage jammed with useless accoutrements like nylons, high heels, and cosmetics—the stuff that binds us, miserably, to some bizarre ideal of femininity.

Not these women.

Pamper day was a reminder to Oxfam’s Female Food Hero participants that with all the hard work on their farms, they shouldn’t forget to treat themselves well, too. Manicures, pedicures, and new hairdos were offered to all–with a celebration of beauty at the end of the day when women paraded their new looks down a vine-laced runway assembled by the inventive EATV crew. Stella Masulya models her new braids. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

Sure, they enjoy a bit of pampering like everyone else, and the show provided a day of it, complete with pedicures, manicures, and hairdos all offered under a wide open sky by professionals bussed into Kisanga for the occasion.

But when I heard the women laughing, when I saw them running and dodging and heaving the ball with all their might, hard and fast and straight, I saw true beauty—one hundred percent unselfconscious, the most gorgeous kind of all.

Mama Shujaa wa Chakula isn’t a beauty contest, not intentionally anyway. It’s a contest intended to elevate the stature of small-scale women farmers in Tanzania—and across Africa—who grow much of the food people depend on but garner little recognition for their essential contributions.

But I have a hunch the Oxfam-sponsored program is doing a whole lot more than that. The reality is this show is celebrating women for who they are—old or young—and giving us all a new ideal to aspire to.

Thank you Mama Shujaa wa Chakula.

Neema Hilonga is a participant in Oxfam’s Female Food Hero reality TV show. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+