Reality-show contestants typically spend their time scrambling to win a man’s heart or a record deal. On Female Food Heroes, which is known as Mama Shujaa Wa Chakula in Swahili, the official language of Tanzania, contestants might be found scrambling to vaccinate a goat.
The show, which debuted in 2011 and concluded its most recent season in late August, is produced by the humanitarian organization Oxfam America and this year aired in partnership with East Africa TV. Each season, Oxfam chooses 18 to 20 participants based on their answers to a widely distributed survey that asks, among other things, what each woman farms and whether she has control over her own income. During a 21-day period, the women compete to win 20 million Tanzanian shillings (about $9,400) as well as farming and fishing tools, pinning their hopes for success on viewer voting and a panel of judges.
The formula for Female Food Heroes is so mundane that it arguably approximates reality better than most reality shows do. On their own or in teams, the women (or washiriki, roughly “contestants” in Swahili) perform tasks that are already part of their daily lives: They weed, lay bricks, garden, build plows, plant trees, repair houses, and sell produce, though they occasionally break from routine by, say, staging a sack race or a fashion show on a makeshift runway. Politicians, local NGO staffers, and other guests also speak to the women on topics like leadership, women’s rights, and gender violence.