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Racing with a baby, and a water bucket on the head: how dads in Tanzania are learning to be better parents and providers

Picture a group of embarrassed-looking dads with fake babies strapped to their backs and buckets of water balanced on their heads preparing for a race in front of a large and very excited crowd.

Dads, diapers and drinking water

There's no Olympic track, and no Usain Bolt in sight, but there’s excitement in the air, and for the ten men at the start, the stakes couldn't be higher. The prize for the winner is a cow. It's more than he could otherwise afford about a year’s earnings. The fake baby and the water aren't just for laughs. In Tanzania, carrying water, like caring for children, is regarded as women's work. So these men aren't just jostling for a cow, but facing down parenting taboos as well.

Risking their pride in the face of a giggling crowd to provide for their children, these great dads are breaking new ground, as part of a simple, but revolutionary project involving 100 fathers. The Skillful Parenting Program combines agricultural innovations with hands-on parenting skills courses.

In this part of rural Tanzania, hardship is everywhere. Drought can mean these subsistence farmers lose their entire income. The resulting poverty-induced stress and despair lead to dysfunction. Alcohol abuse and marital violence are everyday occurrences. Two-thirds of the children here are subjected to corporal punishment from both parents. Violence is very much the norm

The project interrupts this violence on two fronts. On the agricultural front, it provides high-quality drought-resistant seeds to farmers. These improve their farming practices and crop yields. The project also helps the farmers organize into cooperatives. They can then negotiate better prices for their goods. With more money, and more security, the farmers have less stress and new options. They can think about more than just basic needs.

This allows the project to address family life. Parents no longer have to choose which children to educate or engage their kids in farming. Kids can go to school, and play. Parents have the time to support each other in the home. Family life changes. The opportunity to make choices makes parents confident and flexible. It gives them room to laugh and to push boundaries by racing with (very wet) babies on their backs. In the end, just so you know, the race was won by a 38-year-old father of five children.

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