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No Man’s Land – Kenya’s Women-Only Village

Umoja is literally a no man’s land in Kenya – a matriarchal refuge where men are not allowed. The village, founded 25 years ago by Rebecca Lolosoli, is meant to be a safe haven for women and girls who want to escape abuse in the otherwise patriarchal society of the Samburu people, in northern Kenya.

Rebecca, a member of the Samburu tribe, now serves as the chief matriarch of ‘Umoja Usau Women’s Village’. Having witnessed occasional violence as a child, she slowly came to the conclusion that some of the traditional Samburu practices were inherently abusive towards women. So she began to speak out against these practices, in favour of widows, orphans, and victims of rape, female genital cutting, and forced marriage.

Rebecca’s outspoken attitude was met with a lot of resistance. Things got out of hand when she spoke up for a few women who were raped by British soldiers training nearby. Men in her village beat her up, and her husband did not protest on her behalf. So in 1990, she led a female exodus and started her own village.

Umoja-village4

Photo: YouTube video caption

“For more than 50 years, British soldiers trained in our area,” she told Satya Magazine. “Wearing green uniforms they blended with the trees and when women collected firewood, the soldiers would jump out and rape them, laughing like it was a game. The men made their wives leave, taking the children with them. Then they had nothing and many would resort to brewing changaa (an alcoholic drink) to earn money, but it is illegal to sell this, and the women were jailed, leaving their children without caregivers and some were eaten by hyenas.”

“My own husband was not bad,” she added. “We married when I was 18, and he paid a dowry of 17 cows. But four men in the village didn’t like me because I started selling goods, and they beat me up and took my money. Then I started talking about helping the rape victims and the next time my husband left on business, the men beat me severely. I left the hospital and my parents said I should rejoin my husband. He said nothing about what the men had done, and so I realized I could be killed, so I left.”

Umoja-village

Photo: Wikipedia

Rebecca got together with 16 survivors of violence and forged a community for mutual protection, setting up camp on an unwanted field of dry grasslands. Soon, ‘Umoja’ – which means unity in Swahili – was born. It has now evolved into a thriving, self-sustaining village. The women have taken up jewelry making and other crafts, and are able to provide for their children and themselves by opening up their village as a tourist attraction. They’ve also pooled resources to set up a sickness and disability fund, a community center, and a school. The area is prone to drought, so the women have decreased their dependence on cattle. They have a chicken coop that provides both income and protein to the residents.

“Men are forbidden to live in the village, but may visit as long as they behave and abide by them women’s rules,” Rebecca said. “Our objectives are to improve the livelihoods of the women due to rampant poverty and counter the problem of women being abandoned by their families. We also rescue and rehabilitate girls who run away from or were thrown out by their parents due to early pregnancies or marriages.”

Umoja-village2

Photo: Vital Voices

Although the women of Umoja are doing well for themselves, it was not always an easy ride. Rebecca explained that they started off with small mobile shops where they sold maize meal and sugar, but the idea did not take off. After two years of failure, they decided to try selling traditional artifacts to tourists. Recognising their efforts, authorities from the Kenyan Wildlife Services took the women on an educational tour to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, to see what sort of tourist products were sold there.

“Immediately on return, we embarked on an ambitious project of cultural manyatta and campsite, a project that has to date seen only success and which we depend on,” Rebecca said. “We decided to sell our beadwork to tourists and market our village as a tourist attraction. We have been able to establish a school for the children of Umoja and surrounding villages.”

Umoja-village3

Photo: Umoja Women

Once they started making a decent amount of money, the women had to deal with more persecution at the hands of jealous men. “Some men set up a village nearby to block the road and stop tourists from coming here,” Rebecca recalled. “Once, 30 warriors beat us in front of tourists to make it look like this place was corrupt.” So the women decided to buy the land for themselves, to stop the men from driving them away. They saved for months for the down payment, and it cost them about 200,000 shillings. The men, of course, tried to stop them from buying it, but they eventually managed to close the deal.

From the time Umoja was set up, Rebecca has repeatedly been elected the chairperson, a position she still holds. She is also the chair of the local chapter of Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (MYWO), a nonprofit group that works to improve the lives of women in Kenya. In 2010, Rebecca received the Global Leadership Award from Vital Voices, another nonprofit that works for women and human rights. At age 53, she is a successful businesswoman and continues to work tirelessly against unsafe cultural practices in Kenya.

 

Despite everything the women have achieved, Rebecca says that their biggest obstacles are the men. “The men are jealous of our achievements,” she explained. “The Samburu are a patriarchal society where women are bunched together with children. They do not have the right to make decisions or own property. Even men who went to school and some political are fighting us on this but we are soldiering to reverse this. Our area Member of Parliament could not believe we have a website and was really infuriated how advanced we are!”

Nevertheless, Umoja is serving as an example of a successful matriarchy, empowering women in other districts to start their own exclusive villages. They all work towards a common goal – to rid their society of negative cultural practices that are violent towards women. More power to them!

 

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