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When the Rains Slowed: Food Insecurity in Northern Tanzania

Maasai Women

Masaai women walking in Uwiro Village in the Maasai Steepe in northern Tanzania. Photo copyright: Jennifer James

The Maasai Steppe in northeastern Tanzania is bone dry for more months out of the year than those who dwell there are used to. This is a new occurrence. Depending on who you ask in the local Maasai community in Uwiro village, some say the rains started changing in 2001, including several Maasai women who recalled cutting countless trees for charcoal. Others proclaim they first noticed a shift in the weather in the 1980s. No matter when the rains changed, the result now is harsh, arid conditions that force traditional Tanzanian Maasai pastoralists to keep fewer cattle in their herds and drives them to grow crops like maize and beans even though agro-pastoralism is completely unknown to them. Due to the changing weather the Maasai are being forced to change their entire culture in order to survive.

“Always here it is very dry,” said a Maasai woman through translation during a roundtable discussion about their lives as women in a traditional culture. “Once a year they plant the crops like maize and beans because it is very dry,” said Margaret Gabriel, the translator for the group. “They plant from January to February.”

According to the Tanzanian Meteorological Agency (TMA) rains are expected to arrive in the Northern Highlands that includes the Arusha, Kilimanjaro, and Manyara regions during the fourth week of this month. October starts the beginning of the short rainfall season (Vuli). Uwiro village, where the Maasai call home, is roughly 50 km away from Arusha, the largest city in the northeastern part of the country and the third largest city in Tanzania. Even though the rains are expected later this month, the TMA has assured farmers and pastoralists that the rainfall will be, as expected, lower than normal. Farmers have been advised to plant drought resistant crops and pastoralists have been advised to use pastures sparingly and to sell their livestock at the height of the rains.

Waiting for the Rains

The delicate tilt between living in desert and verdant conditions depends solely on the rains. If you speak to the Maasai elders they will tell you that the rains no longer come on time and when it does come it “burns” their pastures due to the intensity and shortness of the rainfall. To the Maasai the rains have changed, but they do not know about climate change in the sense we do with its global implications.

“They all can pinpoint when things started changing,” said Silvia Ceppi, Scientific Advisor for Oikos, an Italian NGO that is working with the Maasai to improve their living conditions, reduce the pressure on the ecosystem, and save their environment. “They cannot rely on nature signs like before to predict the rain.”

Most of the Maasai will tell you that cutting down the trees had an immediate, lasting effect on the changing weather patterns.  Laura Bassini, who coordinates Oikos’ efforts in Tanzania, is not quite sure what ultimately caused the dry conditions.

“It is difficult to understand if it’s climate change or if is it desertification from the cutting of the trees.  It is very difficult to differentiate the desertification process. What is sure is there is a desertification process. If you see the camp ten years ago, it was very green. Now it is completely dry, but for a couple of months per year. ”

According to open rainfall data in Tanzania 1987 saw the first major drop in rainfall in the Arusha region with only 662.7 mm of rainfall compared to 1027.6 mm the previous year. And from the decade between 1991 to 2001 there was only one year (1997) where more than 1000 mm of rain fell during an entire year in the Arusha region. Any environment will be damaged from that much sustained low rainfall. The trend is there has been a reduction of 18mm of rainfall each year since 1926.

The Impact on Food Supply, Nutrition

Tanzania, an agricultural country, is dependent on its rain-fed crops from maize and beans to rice and millet to feed its people. Tanzania has heavy expectations to be able to feed itself especially as over 75 percent of its population works in the agricultural sector. The Maasai, however, are not farmers traditionally and are heavily impacted by the decreasing rainfall. During the rainy seasons the Maasai will eat amaranth and dried leaves according to Ceppi. Most crops will not effectively grow in the Maasai Steepe. Even drought-resistant crops like millet and sorghum have great difficulty growing in the region.

In order to supplement Maasai children’s nutrition, Oikos has planted gardens at local schools in order to help feed them more nutritional foods. This was important to Oikos as many of the children have little to eat each day causing them to be sleepy during class. Some children even fall over due to hunger. However, most of these gardens have died than thrived. In fact, a local Massai school in Uwiro village, didn’t have water for the children to drink let alone excess water to tend the garden when I visited. Today the garden is dry and sparse and doesn’t provide any food for the children, but the idea is to teach the children the principle of growing diversified foods.

“We want to help the schools become a model for the next generation to replicate,” said Ceppi. “We can’t resolve the problem.”

Some of the schools fare better than others like Emmanuel Primary School that is located outside of the steppe and has better rainfall. But the lack of rain remains a concern even here.

“There is a problem harvesting water,” said Head Master Valerian Musaki. “In the dry season, for a short period it is going to be finished. There is three months with water then it runs out.

The mostly failed gardens, lack of food, and traditional Maasai culture cause stunting in Maasai children. Boys are most affected as girls eat a little more because they traditionally cook the food for their families and have greater access to daily sustenance. Plus, in the Maasai culture, families can demand high dowries for their daughters and so keep them better fed for their prospective husbands.

In order to get more food in their diets Maasai women may go to the market to the buy vegetables and staple foods. The market is 20 km away so they may only go once a week. But, due to poverty they typically do not have the money to go to market so they rely on their traditional fare milk, blood, maize and beans hardly the diet that ensures proper growth for children and healthy outcomes for expectant mothers.

“Without food you can’t escape poverty,” said Ceppi.

Reporting was made possible through a fellowship with the International Reporting Project

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