Interview with Eva Tobisson

Women’s income increasingly important on Zanzibar

By Lina Lorentz

Eva Tobisson, Social Anthropologist and NAI researcher, is studying coastal communities in eastern Zanzibar. Her current research interest is the livelihood strategies adopted by women and men, using a combination of land-based and marine resources. She has just returned from a shorter field trip to Jambiani on Zanzibar, a village she has known for more than ten years. Apart from taking care of the family’s small farms, women in Jambiani also earn money by selling seaweed to purchasers in the village. Seaweed cultivation requires hard work in return for a small income.

Q: How has the situation of women changed since you last visited the island?

A: Women and their families are more dependent on seaweed farming today than when I was there two years ago. Since food prices have increased and the income from fishing has declined, the money earned from selling seaweed has become even more important. Money earned by women is usually spent on the family’s most urgent needs, such as food, clothes and healthcare. The more the women earn, the more they have to take care of this kind of expense.

Q: In the communities that you study, many women are responsible for both the family’s farm and seaweed farming. Is it possible to explain why some, but not all, are successful in their strategies?

A: Everybody knows that diversity is important to reducing vulnerability, but not everyone is able to keep both the seaweed farm and the land-based farm in good condition. Seaweed farming requires intensive work during two periods of low tide (lasting from five to six days) per month. The agricultural farms require almost daily work. There is great solidarity among the women involved in seaweed farming. If somebody does not do her work, there is always someone else to step in and help out. Since the women don’t bring their small children to the seaweed farms, the villagers have started a day-care centre where mothers can leave their children (for a small fee) while they are out working along the shoreline.

Q: Part of your research project is about increasing our knowledge of the conditions for people living in poverty. How do the women perceive poverty?

A: The general attitude is that poverty is not only about money and earning an income. Women in particular regard poverty as a very complex condition. Vulnerability stemming from poor health and age are also seen as forms of poverty. Many use phrases like “eating early” or “eating late”. A person who has to eat late is poor, since she has many other duties to complete before she finds food and time to cook. Perhaps she cannot afford to buy firewood but has to collect it herself. By contrast, a woman who can eat early has money to spend on food and perhaps someone to help her collect firewood and fetch water.

Q: What is the strongest impression from your field trip to Zanzibar?

A: I am impressed by the women’s strength to take the initiative to find solutions to problems and to plan strategically according to the limited resources they have. The women are not afraid of trying out new economic projects. Without the driving force of these women, many families would not be able to earn a living.

East Africa
Eva Tobisson
Gender relations
Survival strategies
Women's role
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