Summary: Mariam Joseph Marianda is an iAGRI-sponsored scholar from Dar es Salaam who is pursuing her master’s degree in food science and human nutrition from the University of Florida. Mariam earned a B.A. from Sokoine Agricultural University in 2008 and worked for the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture as a basic nutrition instructor for two years before applying to iAGRI and traveling abroad to study human nutrition at the University of Florida from 2012 until 2013. As of the spring of 2014, Mariam is back home in Tanzania preparing to implement a nutrition intervention program amongst young women of child-bearing age, which is designed to educate them of the need to consume locally available fruits and leafy green vegetables to reduce the likelihood that their children will suffer from malnutrition and anemia.
Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.
Intervening in Tanzania’s Health: Education for anemia and malnutrition reduction
By noon on a sodden Monday in mid-February, the grounds of the Nassoro Seif Secondary School in Turiani, Tanzania were quickly deteriorating into a sloppy mess. The red African soil that had been as hard as concrete through the dry season, was now a mud slurry. Pools of rust colored water flowed between one another, filling in the jumbled mess of deep shoe prints left over by dozens of children dashing for cover between the sky blue and white-washed classrooms that made up the perimeter of the now flooded grounds.
In one such classroom on the north side of campus, sitting in well-worn school desks packed tightly together, sat 63 young women, the entirety of Nassoro Seif’s female student population. They had short cropped hair or were wearing a hijab, the traditional head covering of Tanzanian Muslim women and most were dressed in the kaki long skirts and white button down tops of their school uniform. They spoke softly amongst one another, smiling and giggling in eager anticipation of what the lineup of foreign visitors seated before them might say.
Included in that lineup was Mariam Marianda, a 32 year-old master’s degree seeking iAGRI scholar representing the University of Florida and Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture.
Situated front and center behind a teacher’s desk that was only slightly larger than those of the students, the room’s faded black chalkboard, marked up with a lesson in both English and Swahili, loomed behind her.
As the students’ curiosity settled, Mariam sat in silence, gazing upon her audience, a subtle smile slightly parting her lips. When she was ready, she stood up and took command of the classroom.
“Hello,” greeted Mariam in Swahili, “how are you?”
“We’re good,” replied the class in unison, a few too shy to respond.
“I’m a student just like you,” Mariam continued after introducing herself and the colleagues that flanked her. She would go on to explain that she is conducting research for the University of Florida, and that she would like some of the young women to assist her in those efforts by agreeing to partake in a nutrition intervention program targeting young Tanzanian women of child bearing age and their mothers or caretakers.
Mariam’s research hopes to determine the effectiveness of educating young women and their mothers of the need to consume locally available fruits and leafy green vegetables before and during pregnancy to assure that newborns have an adequate supply of the nutrients needed for healthy development, particularly iron and folate. If such nutrition interventions show potential in changing dietary habits, then the implementation of similar public education initiatives regarding health and nutrition could reduce the instances of anemia and malnutrition in Tanzania.
One of five siblings of a very close family, malnutrition was never a problem for Mariam growing up in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. The daughter of a soldier with relatively high access to plentiful foods, Mariam fondly remembers having enough to eat as a child.
“My father was a soldier,” Mariam told me, smiling at the recollection of the distant memory. “At that time soldiers were given food so we were enjoying biscuits, a lot of fun stuff from the military like beef and fish.”
Mariam’s devotion to advancing agriculture and human nutrition in Tanzania were not always a given. Her initial career interest was in medicine.
“At first I was not thinking of becoming an agricultural instructor,” Mariam recalled of her early professional ambitions. “I was thinking of becoming a doctor.”
What changed for her was that after her mother passed away, while under the care of an uncle, Mariam was advised to shift her scholarly focus from a curriculum based on mathematics to one of biology.
Recalling the change of her academic focus, Mariam said that, “when I realized that I could no longer become a doctor and I applied to Sokoine University of Agriculture, I was thinking about which course was more or less similar to becoming a doctor, I then realized I could do nutrition. I like curing people and I realized that being a nutritionist is not all that different from being a doctor and I’m enjoying being a nutritionist right now.”
Following her graduation from Sokoine, Mariam was employed by Tanzania’s Ministry of Agricultural Training Institute Ilonga, where she taught basic human nutrition, food processing and preservation.
Mariam wanted to further her education though so while completing her two-year work requirement she kept an eye out for scholarships that would allow her to pursue a master’s degree. Upon seeing iAGRI advertised at the institute, Mariam felt that her opportunity had arrived.
Needing to make the journey from the Kilosa district to Sokoine in Morogoro to apply, Mariam was nervous about her chances of being accepted as she submitted her application on the deadline date.
“I thought that a lot of Tanzanians were looking for these chances,” remembered Mariam. “I was reluctant to apply and, to tell you the truth, I applied on the deadline date in the last hours. I was scared. I knew that I qualified, but I knew that many Tanzanians qualified too.”
Upon learning of her acceptance, Mariam’s trepidation morphed into elation.
“First of all, I didn’t believe it. Later I was excited, I don’t know how else to say it,” she paused, searching for words before smiling wide in recollection. “I was excited until the day I was given the visa. I couldn’t believe that I got a chance.”
Mariam’s visa would be to the United States, where she would spend the first year of her scholarship studying food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. Though she was familiar with the subject and had even instructed it for three years in Tanzania, the language barrier and the cultural adjustment’s required to succeed at one of the top ranked human nutrition programs in the United States, would challenge and push her abilities like never before.
“When I went there, I thought I knew English, I qualified for iAGRI because I knew English,” recounted Mariam, pausing at the recollection of that difficult adjustment. “To tell you the truth, in the first few weeks it was hard for me to listen to Americans speak, to understand the lectures. Also, the way I speak, it was hard for them to understand me, so that was challenging.”
Aside from overcoming a language barrier, Mariam was also afraid that she would have difficulty finding acceptance in America as devout Muslim woman.
“When I lived here, people told me, you’re now going to America so you will eat pork, you’ll be harassed because you wear a hijab. At first, I even thought that I would not wear it because I was scared that I’d be discriminated against or harassed,” recalled Mariam regarding her expectations just before leaving for the States.
To Mariam’s surprise, what she found instead was a culture of acceptance and enthusiastic curiosity in her identity as a Tanzanian Muslim woman.
“I realized that my colleagues and students liked me because of what I was wearing,” said Mariam.
University of Florida Professor and Extension Food Safety and Food Quality Specialist, Dr. Amy Simonne, was one of those colleagues who not only accepted Mariam but was instrumental in instilling valuable lessons that would prove applicable beyond academia. Along with co-advisor Dr. Karla Shelnutt, Dr. Simonne would become a mentor that helped Mariam navigate the challenges of being an international student, and they helped to shape a research interest that she could implement upon her return to Tanzania.
“When I’m facing problems here, I go back to them because they have been more than just advisors to me,” claimed Mariam as she recalled the valuable insights she gained from her University of Florida advisors. “In Tanzania, we’re not always taught to be determined with our research. Drs. Simonne and Shelnutt taught me to be determined, that when you want to do something, you have to have focus, you have to set goals and you have to make sure you accomplish it.”
Commenting on Mariam’s personal maturation and academic development while studying abroad, Dr. Simonne said that, “Mariam’s a hard-working, strong, young woman. It’s been interesting to see her development from the beginning until she started thinking that this was her own project. She told me that she now felt empowered. These kinds of feelings you have to develop over the years, so I hope she continues to be empowered and get to a higher level.”
Aside from the valuable lessons and experiences that iAGRI students take from their studies abroad, an important part of their advisement and guidance takes place back at Tanzania as they implement their master’s or doctoral research. Professor John Msuya, a food scientist at Sokoine University was a former instructor of Mariam’s with an expertise in her area of research regarding the importance of iron and folate in maintaining adequate nutrition. Dr. Msuya’s advisement, both academic and personal, proved valuable in reinforcing the lessons learned in the United States, as well as in overcoming significant challenges back home in Tanzania.
Recalling those hardships, Mariam, who had to leave behind a husband and a young son for a year in order to study abroad, said that, “when I was back home in Tanzania, I had some very challenging life and family problems and John was there for me. He was encouraging, he said you have a goal, you can do this, don’t concentrate of the problems so much. I’m lucky to have these three advisors, they are all determined that I graduate.”
Now reunited with her family in Tanzania, the challenges presented by being apart from them are in the past and Mariam can look forward to the next chapter of her research. She’ll begin the implementation of her experimental nutrition intervention program amongst the students of the Nassoro Seif Secondary School throughout the spring of 2014.
The research and the final push required to earn her master’s degree may be the greatest academic challenge that Mariam has yet faced. She has a daunting task ahead of her, yet given the personal journey of growth and maturation that has occurred over the last year and a half in both the United States and in Tanzania, it is easy to understand how Mariam can look upon the challenge that lies ahead with such courage and enthusiasm.
Mariam’s a different woman now than the one who not long ago was teaching basic human nutrition and longing for the opportunity to continue her education. Now she’s confident, determined, goal-oriented and empowered to advance not only herself but also Tanzania through the successful implementation of health and nutrition interventions that can serve as a model for future endeavors designed to educate and empower Tanzanians with the information they need to live healthier, happier lives.
If you would like additional information on Mariam Marianda’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.
All images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.