Tanzania: from field to fork – the journey of food

house

The prestigious Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) is located in a small town of Morogoro, in the agricultural region approximately 200 km west of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. That’s where I spend a week in late March running a workshop and visiting project partners. 

One fine morning I look out of the window of my hotel at the misty Uluguru mountains that the Morogoro area is famous for and that’s when it hits me: I’m visiting a university of agriculture based in the middle of Tanzania’s main food growing region, I work on an agricultural research programme, and yet my practical knowledge of the subject matter is limited to growing carrots in my back garden. 

I manage to find a local sustainable tourism NGO willing to take me to the Uluguru mountains. Traditional communities have been farming there for centuries and bringing their crops down the mountain to sell at the Morogoro market or to ship to Dar es Salaam and other parts of the country. 

My guide and I set off at 8, which is early for me, but apparently rather late by local standards. As we go up the road connecting Morogoro to the foot of the mountains, we pass by smallholder farmers carrying their produce to the market. More often than not they are women, gracefully balancing a heavy load on their heads. They walk upright like candles, without ever looking down at the rocky path. We see an elderly woman carrying a whole enormous bunch of green bananas on her head without the need to support the load with her hands. Sometimes we see an entire family and a bag of onions on one rickety motorbike tearing down the mountain with a roar. 

women

A steep muddy path leads us up onto the mountain. Luckily it’s not raining and my trainers have just about enough grip. The sun is lurking from behind the clouds and before I know it I start sweating profusely.

I shower my guide Evance with questions and before we get to the first village I can already greet people in Swahili in four different ways, depending on their age. I try my new language skills on every passing person, which elicits broad smiles and small gifts. Soon my backpack is filled with ripe avocados, tiny yellow bananas and passion fruits. I stop beside a group of women sowing beans, we exchange greetings and, with Evance’s help, we chat. The women seem ashamed of their ‘backwards’ way of farming. In your country you do this with machines, they say. I nod, but then I tell them about the growing popularity of organic farming in Europe. They gasp when told that in Europe people would be willing to pay much more for their beans than for machine-sown, chemical-treated produce.

bean growers

We walk on, me panting and sweating and Evance treading effortlessly in his plastic sandals, not a drop of sweat on his forehead.

All around us is green farmland. Farmland on a mountain, you may ask? Sure enough, the slopes are regularly washed with torrential rain, especially during the wet season. Yet the crops survive. The secret lies in the construction of terraces: giant steps to prevent water from washing off the crops. 

By far the most popular crop is bananas, the small and sweet kind, as well as the green cooking variety. As one farmer explains to me, bananas are easy to grow all year round and quite profitable. I love Tanzanian bananas whose taste is so much richer than the ones’ in British supermarkets. I assume it is because here bananas ripen on the tree, in the sun. It turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. After an hour or two of climbing we reach a solitary household where we are greeted by an elderly woman, her daughter and two little boys. The old woman shows me a hole in the ground where unripe bananas are kept to mature in the heat of a nearby stove that pumps hot air inside. The woman shows me her vegetable garden – she has onions, leeks, carrots, as well as some more exotic crops scattered among the banana trees, such as coffee and cardamon. The vegetables are only for the family’s own consumption, the only crop that makes its way to the market is bananas.

bananas 2

familyGoing further up, there are more and more bananas and among them – cassava and yams. A farmer shows me the cross-section of a spotted yam and teaches me how to tell it apart from the other variety by looking at the leaves and the root. He then jokingly offers to sell me his land for 6 million Tanzanian shillings. I’m proud to be able to negotiate it down to 3 million, but Evance says it is still way too much. 

After about three hours I spot some familiar looking leaves: pumpkin and peas. Further up, another surprise: a friendly young man is planting strawberries. There are no fruits yet, but he offers me a handful of delicious raspberries. They look different than the European variety, their seeds are smaller. Similarly, blackberries look different, slightly more grey and covered with silvery down, and gooseberries are hidden under a dry peel that you need to remove to get to the fruit. 

strawberries

Shortly before the summit we enter a large field of corn. I open one ripe cob and I see white grains instead of yellow. This maize is harder and whiter than the one grown in Europe or the Americas. It is an East African staple, the base of the thick white porridge called ugali. 

It takes us almost four hours to reach Morningside, once a popular holiday resort among German colonisers now in a very sorry state, watched over by a young woman with four kids. Evance and I flop on the grass, exhausted. We take out the fruit the farmers had given us and we share them with the young woman and the kids. We have avocado, passion fruits and bananas, to which Evance adds small deep-fried doughnuts and a bunch of guava fruit that he picks up for us by doing a dangerous stunt on a branch hanging over a cliff. 

While Evance and the woman chat in Swahili, I talk to the older girl who understands some English, and I hold the restless baby. I bounce the little girl on my knee and I look down at the magnificent green fields stretching down in front of me, breathing in the hot humid air. 

on the top evance

After a couple of hours in the sun, we start our descent, me skidding and sliding on the muddy parts and Evance trying to prevent me from falling. We stop to greet a woman and her little girl picking avocados. The girl offers me some and introduces herself as Fatuma. She then picks up a  bag full of avocados, places it on her head and starts majestically walking down, followed by her mother. Both are wearing flipflops and look like they’ve been walking down the mountain every day for years – which they probably have. Fatuma can’t be older than five or six. After a few minutes I can’t stand the guilt any longer and I take the load from her. It’s  damn heavy. I have to hold the bag with both hands for balance and after a few minutes my arms are screaming with pain. Not long after my neck starts to hurt. It hasn’t even been half an hour when I convince Evance to take the bag from me by challenging him to carry it without using his hands. He is surprisingly good. Fatuma laughs and claps her hands. One of her shoe straps has snapped, so she takes both flipflops in her hand and runs down the mountain barefoot. 

fatuma

In one of lower lying villages we meet Mr. John (a nickname), an elderly man with sparse teeth and a wide smile. He decides to accompany us down the mountain. As we walk down, Mr. John switches on a portable radio and the three of us do an impromptu dance, causing bursts of laughter from passers by. He is visibly popular with the locals – every few minutes someone stops him to chat. Evance and I keep walking and after a few minutes we see Mr. John running down the mountain, grinning and panting, his portable radio in hand. At one point a toothless old woman abandons her farming chores and runs up a hill to chat to him. When he catches up with us again, he explains to Evance (who translates for me) that the two of them used to be an item, but she was too promiscuous for him. She in fact has seven children, each with a different father. Mr. John’s troubles with the ladies incite Evance to tell me about his: he is divorced and can only see his one year old son under police custody as he and his ex keep fighting. 

mr john

We stop in another village to see a health clinic. It is closed, so I examine the posters with health messages hanging outside. A lot of them are focused on the importance of exclusive breast-feeding of babies. Others are more general messages related to nutrition and the diets of children and pregnant women. Nearby I see a nicely maintained vegetable garden with a logo of the USAID-funded Feed the Future project that runs farmer field schools and distributes seeds.

Next to the clinic is a local primary school. It is a single-storey brick bungalow with two rather bare classrooms. Some handmade teaching aids are hanging on the wall. Overall, the empty and rather dirty classroom is a depressing sight. I can’t help thinking that a lick of paint and sweeping the floor would make such a difference. 

classroom

I use one of the toilets located just outside the school. It is a basic latrine as can be expected, but I’m surprised to see that none of the cubicles have doors. Would a pre-teen girl want to use it when a boy can walk in any time?

We reach Morogoro exhausted and drenched in sweat. Even Evance is less eloquent now. It looks like it has rained in town, as the ground is wet and we have to navigate around large paddles.

The Morogoro market is located in the centre of town near the dalla dalla (mini bus) station. As we reach it, the market is waking up again after a rain shower: merchants are shaking water off the palm tree roofs over their stalls and lifting protective plastic covers from the more sensitive produce. Despite the rain, the market is swarming with people, knee-deep in mud, going about their business of selling and buying to the accompaniment of laughter and shouting.

market

The market is where all the produce from the Uluguru mountains reaches the consumer. The stalls are heavy with the riches of the plant and animal kingdom: tomatoes, carrots, peppers, yams, bananas, papaya, pineapple, passion fruit, rice, flour, maize, dried fish, spices… Dizzy with sights, sounds and smells, I follow Evance around and smile at the merchants who greet me with the usual karibu, welcome. I buy a coconut and a few mangos before heading back to the hotel to wash the dust and sweat off my body and give my mud-caked trainers a good bath. 

That evening I’m too exhausted to even think of dinner. Instead, I have half a fresh coconut and an enormous juicy mango from the market. As I eat, I’m thinking of where the food we swallow without reflection comes from. Here in Morogoro it is grown on small plots of land high in the mountains and then carried down on the heads of people like Mr. John, little Fatuma and her mom.

market stall

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