The First Woman to Travel the World

This is the story of Jeanne Barré (also spelled Baret or Barret), the first woman in recorded history to complete a circumnavigation of the globe in the 18th century – and she did it disguised as a man.

The early life of Jeanne Barret

old drawing of Jane Barrett

Jeanne Barré was born in 1740 in a village in Burgundy, France. Her father was a daily agricultural worker, and as such, amongst the poorest members of society. Her mother died 15 months after her birth. There is little known about her childhood, and records of her and her family are scarce. But at that time, no one could have predicted such an extraordinary future.

What we do know is that early on, Jeanne develops a fascination for plants, and learns about their medicinal properties. But it is her meeting with Philibert de Commerson that will change the course of her life. At 22, she is employed by the famous botanist as a housekeeper, close to her hometown. The two develop a special bond, most likely over their love of plants, that would last until Commerson’s death.

According to a biography written by Glynis Ridley: “She was an herb woman: one schooled in the largely oral tradition of the curative properties of plants. Herb women were for centuries the source of all raw materials to be prepared, mixed, and sold by male medical practitioners, and as botany crystallized as a science in the eighteenth century, a handful of male botanists did not think it beneath them to learn from these specialists.

In 1764, Jeanne became pregnant, probably with Commerson’s child, even though she refused to name the father on the official documents. At that time, and possibly to avoid a scandal, she and Commerson move to Paris, where unfortunately, the child dies soon after the birth. At that time, the two start socializing with prominent intellectuals, and eventually, Commerson is recommended to take part in an expedition around the world led by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, as a botanist.

Jeanne on the Étoile

At the time, the French navy strictly forbade women from being on board. But that wasn’t enough to deter Jeanne from accompanying her partner on the Étoile, one of the two ships of the expedition. Who came up with the plan? No one can know for sure, but chances are the two were partners in crime.

Therefore, on the day of the departure, Jeanne showed up dressed as a boy, using the name “Jean”, to be employed as Commerson’s assistant. Commerson, because of the large amount of material necessary to collect and preserve plant specimens, was granted the captain’s cabin to share with his assistant. This detail was actually key to shield Jeanne’s secret, as the cabin had a private toilet facility which allowed privacy.

At this time, Commerson suffered poor health, and a long lasting leg injury made the presence of Jeanne even more crucial, as she was acting as much as a nurse as she was her assistant in his scientific work. In fact, she is probably responsible for most of Commerson’s discoveries, even if she was never credited. She is most likely the one who discovered the Bougainvillea vine, named in honor of the expedition’s leader. At every stop, the pair would disembark and explore the land to collect plant samples, still unknown in the West. Much of their collection is still displayed in various museums worldwide.

During the expedition, Jeanne experienced very hard work, having to carry the heavy wooden plant presses used in the field to preserve the specimens they encountered. She was involved in collecting about 6000 plant specimens. She even often led the expeditions herself, as Commerson’s health sometimes prevented him from going out in the field. Her tireless work had Commerson refer to her as her “beast of burden”.

During 2 years, Jeanne shuts down rumors about her gender by pretending to be a eunuch (a man who has been castrated for social purposes). But eventually, her secret is exposed. There is still uncertainty about how her true identity was revealed, as there are contradictory tales about the event. According to Bougainville, her gender was revealed by the local population when the expedition reached Tahiti in 1768. Other members of the expedition refer to sexual assaults by crew members.

After the unveiling of Jeanne’s secret, she and Commerson decide to leave the expedition and disembark in the Isle of France, a former French colony now known as Mauritius.

Jeanne’s life in Mauritius

Jeanne and Commerson continue their work as botanists on the island of Mauritius, exploring the land and collecting and identifying plant species.

While Commerson has named many plants in honor of friends and family members, it is only at that time that he decides to name one after Jeanne. However, by the time the sample reaches Paris, the plant has already been named, and is now known as Turraea.

Commerson passed away in 1773, leaving Jeanne in a difficult situation, as her resources have become scarce. But if there is anything we know for sure about Jeanne Barré, is that she is a resourceful woman.

Left on her own after a life spent alongside Commerson, Jeanne has to find another way to make a living. She decides to buy a license to run a tavern in Port Louis. Records show her establishment receiving a 50 livres fine for serving alcohol on Sundays!

In 1774, she married a French soldier, Jean Dubernat. Before marrying him, Jeanne has him sign a prenuptial contract, stating that she would keep control of 2/3 of her fortune. After sailing around the world for several years and running her own tavern in Mauritius, Jeanne had not only become a businesswoman, but an independent woman, or at least, as independent as could be at the time.

Jeanne becomes the first woman to travel the world

Jeanne and Jean Dubernat finally decide to go back to France, most likely in 1775, thus completing her journey around the globe, and making her the first woman in recorded history to ever sail around the globe!

After applying to the attorney general, Jeanne receives money from Commerson’s heritage, which allows her and her husband to buy various properties including a farm. Dubernat signs a document stating that he and his wife will share the properties equally, which is again, a very uncommon thing, and speaks volume on Jeanne’s character.

In 1785, Bougainville pleaded for Jeanne to receive a royal pension for her contributions on board the expedition, even though she was never supposed to be on board. The document granting her pension states:

Jeanne Barré, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…”.

Even after her secret was discovered, she was still considered with high regards for her contributions to the expedition. She was never punished, but instead, ended up being celebrated for her hard work.

Jeanne passed away in 1807.

Jeanne’s legacy

It is still hard for historians to find details about Jeanne Barré’s journey, as she was seldom credited for her work. Some members of the expedition did, however, acknowledge her hard work, such as The Prince of Nassau-Siegen, a nobleman who was a paying passenger on the ship: “I want to give her all the credit for her bravery. She dared confront the stress, the dangers, and everything that happened that one could realistically expect on such a voyage. Her adventure, should, I think, be included in a history of famous women.”

Her story is amazing in many ways: her fearlessness, her independence at a time when women were merely considered as children as well as her business acumen, make her a truly extraordinary woman.

In 2012, a newly discovered plant species was named after her: the Solanum Baretiae. The credit for her work might have taken a long time, but finally, credit is given where credit is due!

So, next time you feel afraid of taking the leap (whatever the leap may be), think about her and try to channel your inner Jeanne!

Feature: People Call Me Ocean

At the Solo Female Traveler Network, we want to create a community that celebrates and empowers women. In 2021, we want to recognise the women amongst us – those who lead, inspire and leave a mark in their own unique ways. 

 

Presenting the story of Aušrinė Pudževytė: a painter, interior decorator and muralist who wants to leave her artwork in every country.

Ocean standing near a mural of sea waves

I was thinking back to where my story starts, and when it actually became a story that everyone wants to listen to… Let’s start by saying that it was the day I was born. It is much more important is to mention that art was born within me that day too.

So, a woman full of colors was named Aušrinė, translated to the morning star or dawn from my native language – Lithuanian. My little hands tried everything: a sheet of paper, canvas, brushes, pencils, and other tools before my main focus became different walls around the world.

I remember one of my first trips abroad – Finland. There I had the opportunity to do  decorate one of the school walls, where I was interning. I forgot to mention. At that time, I didn’t speak English, but I had confidence like I was using this language for more than 20 years of my life. I am still trying to figure out where all this confidence came from!

Ocean sitting on the floor near a wall painted with blue and purple cacti

I painted a huge plantation of cactuses – in glorious shades of purple and delicious green. On the last few days of my project, visitors started seeing the final results. They would scratch the walls and ask me questions, wondering how I painted it. 

One stranger observed me cleaning my brushes and said, “I have been working in this school for more than 15 years. Everyday I see the same, empty, plain wall. You have made more than an artwork. You brought the sun to our school”.

That day, I found my life’s purpose: Travel around the world and bring that sun to people’s apartments, restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels and any other places that need art. I wanted to help people feel happier and my art was my superpower.

4 women painted on a wall, with blue and yellow chairs in the foreground. A painting by ocean.
Ocean painting on a wall, holding paint in one hand and a paintbrush in the other hand.

Now one country brings me to another one. One stranger brings me to another, and this grows into love, family, real friendship and mentorship. You can find my murals, paintings and illustrations in 14 of the 17 countries I have traveled to: Lithuania, Spain, Finland, Indonesia (Bali Island), United States (Chicago), United Kingdom, Zambia, Tanzania (Zanzibar Island), Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Sweden and South Korea. 

Do you think the next country could be yours? Let’s make it happen! To learn more about Aušrinė’s work, check out her portfolio through the links below. 

Have you read the story of Jeanette Dijkstra, all-round superwoman destroying landmines in Angola? No?     Read here!

Do you have a story worth sharing? Apply to be featured on our global community!

Part III: From Angola to Morocco

Jeanette Dijkstra is a fascinating woman. 

In previous parts of the interview, Jeanette shared the impact of her work as the Country Director of a NGO, working for land mine clearance in Angola. In the second part, we peek into her personal life and how a 51-year old is fighting patriarchy with resilience and business skills.

In the final part of this series, Jeanette takes us on a journey spanning Africa,  finally resting in Marrakech. She discusses a post-Covid future and shares helpful tips for solo travelers and why everyone should visit Morocco at least once.

Morocco is home

Man and woman with head gear looking at a sunset over a desert in Morocco.

I love my job, I don’t plan on doing anything else anymore. I don’t plan to move back to my home country, not if I don’t have to. Angola is just where I work. And I have a lot of fun, make no mistake. I have brilliant friends here, but home is Morocco.

That’s where I ended up 10 years ago. I always knew that I wanted to live somewhere on the African continent. I have very limited experience in South East Asia, Latin America or the US. I have been there like 3 or 4 times, but I have always travelled extensively on the African continent. That’s where I knew that I wanted to grow old.

But then, I couldn’t pick a country! I have been to 24 countries on the African continent, and I couldn’t choose where I wanted to spend my old days! I was thinking and thinking and then, 10 years ago, I went to Morocco on a walking holiday through the mountains and the desert for 2 weeks. And at the end of the tour, I arrived in Marrakech. As I was walking into the city I thought, “Yes, this is home!

Then, it took me another 3 years of thinking about it and looking at apartments and I finally bought myself a tiny apartment. So that’s my home.

Managing two jobs

I travelled a lot by myself on the African continent, and I also worked as a tour leader when I was still working as a consultant. I worked 8 months out of the year as a consultant, and then I spent 3 or 4 months as a tour leader. Because I love travelling and organizing, groups comes naturally to me!

So for me, to travel around with tourists was cool, like a free holiday! I still had to manage the group but that was no sweat on my back! There were only 16 people, come on! So I saw a lot of countries doing that and I loved camping and safari for one month in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia. Eventually, I ended up in Morocco as a tour leader, and I settled.

Tourism & Sustainability

Mother and her baby on a farm, looking away from the camera

I have a business partner in Morocco: I was the international tour leader and he was the national tour leader. We started chatting about tourism and how it can be sustainable. It is so easy to say that sustainable tourism is good and to praise eco-tourism, but how do you operationalize that in the right way? It is not easy.

Because it’s not just about saving natural resources or treating your staff well, it’s also about preserving local cultures and local systems, and being good to the people who work for you, make sure that they can make a living. It’s about working with local entrepreneurs and not with the big hotel chains, working with guides that are passionate about their job, who really enjoy what they are doing and not just doing it for the commission that they can get.

We built ourselves a network of drivers and guides and hotels and restaurants and activities that fit into how we see things. That can be from very basic to a 5-star service. We started doing that 8 years ago and it got bigger and better. We have a website and we post occasionally on Facebook, but it’s mostly with the word of mouth that we get clients.

A tour for sofe

Female walking towards a monument

We organize round trips with everything included, we take care of everything. It’s all custom made tours.

We developed a tour for the Solo Female Traveler Network. We started talking last year but then, when we were ready to start, the Covid pandemic happened. Hopefully, we can start at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. But at the moment, tourism in Morocco has completely flat-lined because the airports are still closed, so clients can’t get in or out.

Now that I am back to a full time job, I no longer have time to lead groups myself. I still try to do one every year, but 9 out of 10 times, it turns out to be a group of my friends and not clients! I am indeed the tour leader but, as I said, it’s not really work for me.

Safety for solo travelers in africa

Woman in black top laughing in the daytime with mountains in the backdrop

There are not a lot of women travelling alone around Africa. Because there is a lot of nonsense on social media, but it has a lot to do with how people behave. What I mean is, if you are in a Muslim country you need a different approach in what you wear and how you react to people.

If you are constantly trying to be charming and cute, then men misunderstand your body language. In  the Moroccan society, they are super hospitable. But yes, there are guys that are looking for tourists, who unfortunately have the reputation of being a little bit looser in their sexual conduct.

I don’t want people to feel like they have to always wear long sleeves and skirt that goes all the way to the ground, but if you dress what would be considered provocatively in a Muslim society, you will receive unwanted attention. That is very unfair, and people should be able to wear whatever they want. But the reality is, the way that you dress and the way that you behave as a female, you are always sending cultural messages.

The same goes for men, by the way. If men are walking around in shorts and tank tops or with a lot of visible tattoos, that will set them apart. Those things make you clearly appear as a tourist and it seems like you can be taken advantage of.

Rule #1 as an anthropologist: if you are looking for a good informant, you need to go and find them! People who approach you and quickly get very familiar with you, are not being friendly, they want something from you. So if I need to ask for my way – and I still get lost in Marrakech all the time, because I have no sense of direction, typical female!- I will go to a shop owner and I will politely ask him.

a super cool country!

Busy market with stalls and people in the sunset in Marrakech

Women should come and have fun, just be aware of the messages that you are sending with how you dress. You just have to be aware of the cultural difference in that sense. Moroccans are super hospitable but you still need to use your radar.

I hope Morocco opens very soon again and we can have people coming to travel and to be able to show them how cool Morocco is, because it is a super cool country! Especially for people that are interested in the local cultures and the way of life and not the nightclub scene. And then there is the food and the cooking – it’s a super cool country!           

I picked it out of a very stiff competition, but it turned out Morocco is the country that I get to call home.

Golden Gaze: A Queer and Black-Owned Bed and Breakfast

Are you looking for a travel experience that is inclusive, accessible and sustainable?

Katie and Reigh have a vision to create a Queer and Black owned Bed and Breakfast in the picturesque town of Golden, Canada. While Katie is a certified Life Coach using the Enneagram, and has a background working in nonprofits, her partner, Reigh, identifies as nonbinary, queer, chronically ill Person of Colour, with a love for upcycling things. 

Determined to create a community-centric and affirming space, this couple is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to translate this B&B into reality. We interviewed this dynamic duo to learn more about the property – charmingly called Golden Gaze –  and the obstacles that need to be surmounted. Katie and Reigh also shine light on a topic that is insufficiently discussed: marginalised communities and their struggles in travel. 

Artists rendition of the Golden Gaze B&B, showing Katie and Reigh waving, with two dogs and a cat outside a house. There are mountains and trees in the background.

what is the B&b all about?

With Golden Gaze Bed and Breakfast, we hope to redefine the travel experience, by building a space that values sustainability, accessibility, and dynamic inclusivity for all guests.

Golden Gaze will help our guests prioritize connection and growth during their stay, so in addition to our unique cabins and hearty, homemade breakfasts, we’ll have a yoga, movement, and meditation sanctuary, on-site Enneagram coaching, and a cannabis lounge among other amenities to help folks reconnect to themselves and to our Earth. 

Vacations should be restorative, and full of opportunities to feel treated and cared for. We want to make a place where anyone can feel welcome, which is why we are explicitly affirming for folks often ignored by the travel and tourism industry, such as Queer/Trans, Racialized/BIPOC, Disabled, Fat, and/or Polyam folks, so everyone feels freer to connect deeply to themselves, their partner(s), and the natural world around us.

what inspired you to start an inclusive vacation retreat?

We wanted to create the type of deeply healing, eco-friendly vacation retreat that we have always been looking for as a Queer, interracial couple, who cares about the environment. We have loved traveling together since we began dating in 2012, but have often walked away from vacations feeling disconnected from our values and knowing that we could do better. Whether that was from a lack of recycling stations on the property, a racist piece of art at a vacation rental, or an inaccessible bathroom – we just felt like we could build something that better prioritizes both our environment and those of us often ignored by the tourism industry.

The antidote to so many of those frustrations can be solved by being a place that prioritizes inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability from the ground up. Everyone should be able to take a vacation you can feel good at, and feel good about.

golden - the name says it all. why did you choose this location for your b&b?

The name truly does say it all. Golden, B.C. is radiant!

We are very lucky to currently live just 5 hours from Golden – which is considered within driving distance              in Canada. We have spent anniversaries and weekends there, and have road-tripped through the area –        and each time we have had an exquisite time.

It is quaint, but filled with awesome amenities and an endless array of options and activities to explore the area, without being overrun like some more common tourist destination mountain towns in the area. It’s a gorgeous place to reconnect to yourself, and the world around you. 

could you share more about the focus on sustainability and the 'farm-to-table' concept?

As we started creating our vision, we quickly realized we wanted it to be as eco-friendly as current tech could allow for. If we are living into our values of equity and justice, we can’t do that without making sure we are treating the environment with care and avoiding as much harm as we can. To live in respect and reconciliation with our Indigenous Community members, we aim to partner with them in as many ways as they are interested in, and within their established Land Code for the area we plan to build in. This includes following intentional stewardship over the land, and living in a way that is beneficial to all living things, not just humanity.                    For us, respecting the Land Code meant becoming sustainable and minimising our impact on the planet. 

Some of the sustainability measures we are going to apply are Solar Panels, a grey-water recycling system, an eco-friendly septic system, radiant biomass heating including paved walkways to allow for easier accessibility, in-unit composters, covering the housing units with living roofs and biodiversity that is beneficial to the area, and more. 

We want to grow all of our own produce for our delicious breakfasts on-site using our all seasons agro-tunnel(s) and outdoor gardens in the summer months. Anything we can’t grow in our fields, tunnels, or garden beds will be bolstered by local suppliers in the area to ensure a truly delightful and nutritious start to your day, nourished by the very land you’re sleeping on.

Artist's rendition of the Golden Gaze property, showing a house with green foliage, a canopy and chairs in the front yard and a mountain in the background

individuals with varying levels of disabilities often face challenges in finding accommodations that are accessible.

How does golden gaze aim to be more inclusive for people with different needs?

Traveling as a disabled person can be extremely difficult at best, and impossible at the worst of times.              Our world has not been designed for universal access and it is a human rights violation. Too often, folks with mobility devices can’t even get in the door, or down the airplane aisle, for example.

We want to create a place that takes away the guesswork of if you can even access the space. We want to be dynamically accessible, recognizing that accessibility can be wildly different for different people. Furthermore, we are also committed to being mindful and considerate around weight capacities on all our furniture. Too often the fat community is left out because of poor quality furnishings or equipment that cannot support them in an appropriate way. We want to create a space where all bodies are welcome!

Some of the accessibility features you can expect to see would be: wider hallways appropriate for a turning radius, adjustable beds, roll under sinks, grab bars, ramped entries, and much more. A list of our accessibility measures can be found on our website. 

as a queer and black couple, have you faced any challenges in initiating this business?

how are you overcoming this?

As marginalized folks we have had less opportunity to earn capital than others in our society. We have both essentially run underfunded non-profits on our own and learned all of the skills required to run a successful business, without any of the capital rewards that typically come with those skills and labour experience.            This is the reason, like most marginalized entrepreneurs, we decided to turn to crowdfunding. With our community’s help we can (1) provide a larger down-payment to secure the larger loan needed to build, and      (2) prove market interest in our business concept, and a desire to see more spaces like this exist.

Access to capital has definitely been the biggest roadblock to getting started. The communities who would really benefit from our space are also generally in a position of less disposable income than others, so finding the support within our community also has its own barriers. 

Aside from the financial factors, most of our other challenges have been in convincing folks who don’t share the lived experience of being a marginalized person on why there is a need for such places to exist. There is a lack of safety for our communities in the travel world that should be addressed. If you have never experienced inaccessibility, or feeling mistreated on vacation, it’s hard to understand why spaces like this are so needed,    but for those of us who have had that be a common experience for us while traveling, Golden Gaze is a refreshing vision for the future of the tourism industry! 

a flow chart depicting who can visit the golden gaze property

is there anything you would like to share with our community of solo female travelers?

We cannot wait to host you! Having done some solo-travelling ourselves, we know that your safety, comfort, and well being are critical to enjoying your time. It can be daunting to travel alone, and so we really want to create a space where you know you’ll be welcome and accepted, and free to exist as you’d like.

Traveling is such a rewarding way to learn more about yourself and your relationships to the world and other folks. To deepen that experience even further, you can do on-site Enneagram and Life Coaching with Katie. We are also happy to create safety check in systems with those who prefer to have someone aware of their whereabouts, plus we are hoping to partner with folks like the Solo Female Travel Network to meet other like-minded travelers!

To learn more about Golden Gaze and how you can support such spaces, click here

Are you a travel business owner? Share your stories with our community. Get in touch for a chance to be featured on our website!

Part II: Destroying Land Mines and The Patriarchy in Angola

Jeanette Dijkstra leads the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, a country with a traumatic history of Civil War. In the first part of this series, Jeanette throws light on the magnitude of the problem, the role of women and the effect of continued humanitarian efforts in local communities. 

In this article, Jeanette shares her personal journey in Africa. Her story takes us around the world, with an amazing woman who became the CEO of a pizza business and then the Country Director of a NGO, breaking stereotypes along the way. 

From senegal to the netherlands

Buildings and trees near a water body with boats in Amsterdam

I am an anthropologist by training. I finished my education in the late 1980’s and I came back to the Netherlands from Senegal, where I did my thesis research in a development project there. I needed a job, so I started working in a restaurant serving pizzas and pouring beers for clients.

I’m going to do the very quick version: in 3 months I was managing the restaurant and in 6 months I was managing the hotel above! 15 years later we had businesses in 4 European countries and I was the CEO, so I was basically running the whole show!

But I always kept travelling to the African continent, going on safaris, and I always remained an anthropologist,    I always wanted to see how other people were living. 

taking chances

I’m not afraid of starting new things, or figuring out everything from scratch. I basically learned everything          as I went. But it always kept itching my mind that I never chose to be in the international hospitality industry. Yes, I was good at it, even if when I started, I made all the mistakes in the book and I invented a few new mistakes!

But when I became 30 I thought, “Is it what I want with the rest of my life?” 

I was making really good money, my boss was really happy with me, I worked my ass off, the business was doing really well. But I kept thinking, “I want to go back to NGOs”, that is what I trained for. Somehow, I wasn’t paying attention and 10 years later all of a sudden I’m a big boss in a company I basically started serving pizzas in,  once upon a time!

But then, silly enough, I thought for a very long time, “What do I have to offer to NGOs?” What I have to offer is the fact that I think like a businesswoman, I know how to run teams and solve problems. And I’m not afraid of stepping into something that I know nothing about.

first steps in angola

I started in Angola as a consultant. I got hired by a donor from the Netherlands to go check on the program, more as a crisis manager. It wasn’t going very well and there was money missing in action and they weren’t getting the results that they said they would get. So that’s how I ended up here in 2009. That’s where my previous experience in running teams and getting team dynamics to function kicked in.

So I got here and the problems were big, definitely, I worked with the donors and all the other stakeholders to get them to give us a little bit more time so we could deliver what we said we would.

And that worked really well. It’s about getting the whole team to function as one. Then that same organization kept asking me back to Angola to come and solve other issues. So I began as a program manager for that organization.

I knew the previous country director for MAG in Angola and when she – also female – wanted to leave to go back to the UK, she said “Would you be interested in my job?” and I thought about it for 5 minutes and I went “I know nothing about landmines, other than what I’ve seen on television and read in the newspapers, so I think I can!

So I sent my CV and it clearly shows that I’m not afraid to do new stuff and they thought, “let’s take a risk!” And here we are!

running a ngo like a business

an individual in checked shirt gesturing with their hands with a laptop in the background

And I now obviously know everything there is to know about mines and I can hold my ground. But I got hired because I know how to run an organization. My management skills were more important than any technical knowledge about landmines, because I have other people in charge of that. I’m good at dealing with the Embassy people and the government people, getting our accreditations and this and that and the other.

And that’s what I brought to the NGOs, to look at things as a business. You can spend your dollars only once, I don’t like waste. I’m a process manager more than anything, I think in timelines. I don’t just have the idea, I operationalize it as fast as possible and if I see something that I can’t fix because the timeline isn’t long enough, then either that changes or we stop developing the plan. You can only focus on so many things in a day, so focus on the things that you can actually achieve. 

I can dream the big dreams but what’s the point if I can’t make them happen?

"no" is never the final answer

A group of people with raised hands

Now I am taken seriously. It helps that I’m 51 years old. I think until my forties I definitely had to fight harder to be taken seriously. Because I was too young, and a female. Now, I have established myself and people know me, so now I will come into the room with recommendations from others. If I had to start over in a new country, that would be complicated again. But I have done it before and I would do it again if needed.

This is a position that you have to build, very slowly and very carefully. I lead a very boring life in the sense that I work, and that’s it! If I was going to nightclubs and living the high life, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

At some point I was writing business plans to go to banks and get massive loans to furnish a complete hotel, and the first five times I got thrown out of the bank. I was 25 years old and I asked for 10 million euros, and the bank manager just laughed at me and told me to get out of his office. But you know, 3 weeks later I was back with a better plan and he threw me out 5 or 6 times, but the 7th time he said: “Okay, sit down and show me”. I am very persistent, I just think “Okay, it’s going to take a bit longer”, but “no” is definitely never the final answer.

I never step back, I got thrown out of banks and whatnot many many times. But I would just dust myself off and make a better plan and go again! You need to be stubborn as hell, that’s for sure!

Working for MAG in Angola is a lot of work, but I love trouble! And I’ve always worked in male dominated organizations. I come from a business background, in the kitchen it’s always a male chef, half the other managers we work with were guys. I’m 51, I’ve been playing the male dominated game for more than 30 years now!

An American Expat’s Experience of Albania

Despite warnings from well-meaning friends about the country’s notorious crime rate, she decided to travel to Albania. Jordan shares her personal experiences and lists all the reasons why you need to visit this beautiful underrated country.

“I don’t want to scare you, but – kidnapping, corruption and drugs rule that country. Whatever you do, just be careful.”

This was a text message I received from a friend the night before I boarded my one-way flight to Tirana, Albania. As a solo female expat, receiving warnings from friends and family becomes an innate part of the lifestyle. However, this particular message left me feeling doubtful. Was leaving America and traveling to Albania a terrible idea?

Fast forward 3 weeks since arriving  in Albania’s cosmopolitan capital city, Tirana, and I can happily report I will be extending my stay in this underrated country.

exploring tirana

Despite the country’s dark Communist past and poor reputation from their European neighbors, Albanians wear their history with perseverance.  This desire to progress trickles into everyday life here in Tirana, where the atmosphere is vibrant and youthful. This walkable city showcases primary-colored buildings, produce stands scattered throughout the streets filled to the brim with fresh figs, and coffee bars everywhere.

Literally, did you know Tirana is the second city in the world with the highest number of coffee bars per capita? AKA expat heaven.

Adventuring beyond the city walls is where you really experience the day-to-day life of Albanians. The difference between rich and poor protrudes from the streets as you witness the Mercedes being quickly replaced with donkeys pulling carts of local people. Here, the Skanderbeg mountain range provides a backdrop to the partially constructed homes and  farmers walk with sticks, guiding their cows down the sidewalks; but nothing quite catches your eyes and ears like the people who inhabit these streets. Shiqp, or Albanian, is spoken loudly and passionately. While you have no idea what is being said, the body language of two locals exchanging laughs over a coffee speaks volumes.  As they share that smile with me, sitting in a passing car with my windows down,  I can’t help but think for one to truly know Albania, they must experience it themselves.

Berat: The city of a thousand windows

an aerial view of the city of Berat showing a river, a bridge and houses along the hillside

My desire to develop a well-rounded perspective of this country meant experiencing  as much of it as I possibly could. With this in mind, my first weekend in Tirana I rented a car and drove down south to Berat, an UNESCO protected destination, also known as the city of a thousand windows. Just before arriving in Berat, I took a mini detour to a local vineyard called Cobo Winery. I was immediately welcomed into the care of a young woman who walked me through the vineyard and gave me a tour of her great grandfather’s legacy. Once learning about the wine, it was time to give it a taste!

Over the course of 3 hours I relaxed in their yard, playing with the kittens who roamed freely, talking with the family, and sipping the incredible array of wine. While the €20 tasting could have been completed in an hour,     it added to the experience to genuinely connect with this beautiful family while enjoying the fruits of their historical, hard labor. Eventually, I arrived in Berat and checked into Berat Backpackers Hostel. The hostel sits on the right side of the Gorat Bridge with a view of the Osum river and a complete panorama of the Ottoman architectural city. From the garden you also have a straight shot of the famous Berat Castle. 

After a night’s rest,  I made my way towards the fortress. Just before arriving though, I noticed an older woman sitting under an umbrella with a bucket of green bulbs. We made eye contact and she lured me in by offering her hand out, in which sat a sun-kissed fig. I cautiously bit into the delicate fruit and immediately shared a giggle with her.  No words were exchanged, but I’m sure she could tell I had never tasted anything so delicious before. Figs in hand, I made it up the 30 minute hike to the castle. Within the walls resides a small village at which you can sip coffee, peer at the embroidered table cloths for sale and eventually make your way to the very top where the Church of Holy Trinity sits. From this 15th century Albanian orthodox church, you have made it to the highest point in Berat.

a memorable road trip

A quick 24-hours in Berat and then I was on the road again to Vlorë. It’s important to note that driving through Albania is an experience in it’s own. A lesson I quickly learned is that driving and parking rules are merely suggestions. While the car rental is affordable (€35/day), there are parts of the country where you can’t rely on Google maps. All part of the adventure, right?

Only a few false right turns later, I reached the picturesque beach and city holiday location of Vlorë. At first, driving the boardwalk felt like I was in California, passing the strip of Santa Monica, but you know –            Albanian style. Tall, pastel painted apartment buildings and local restaurants advertising the “catch of the day” dress the left side of the street and to the right, pedestrians stride along the ocean as it expands beyond the eye. One day spent at Kalaja Restaurant, swimming and sipping on Peroni with locals, was enough for me to confirm what I had heard since arriving in Albania: The rocky terrains and crystal blue waters of the south hold some of the best beaches in Europe. 

In one weekend I hit just shy of 400 km and a more conscious view of this country. While the sites were incredible on their own, the most memorable experiences were in the small, unexpected moments. Driving along the jaw-dropping Tomorri Mountains passing the petit village towns, the on-the-house Brauhaus and reki from my friendly waiter at Tradicional Zgara in Vlorë – each exchange with local Albanians, either young or old, showed me how proud they are to show me something of their culture. 

Since I arrived in Albania, a reoccuring moment stayed with me – the shared smiles and overall welcoming spirit from the people. I always gauge my likability on the road with the people, and while many would argue that Albanians are cold and corrupt, they are the exact reason why I extended my stay in Albania.

About the author

Image of the author Jordan Jeppe wearing a hat and smiling into the camera

Jordan Jeppe

Jordan believes her purpose in life is to be of service to others. Jordan runs a social media marketing business and has successfully built a lifestyle around traveling and remote working. She mentors individuals towards adopting a similar “ultimate freedom lifestyle,” and has a deep love for yoga, mindfulness and meditation. 

Destroying Land Mines and the Patriarchy in Angola

Jeanette Dijkstra is the country director of the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, an NGO working on clearing landmines that were laid out during a conflict that lasted for 41 years. Here is her story:

Land Mines of War

“It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola”

kids playing on tank

Mines Advisory Group has been working in Angola since 1994. Angola is an oil rich and a diamond rich country. That has led to a war that lasted for 41 years. It started in 1961 with the liberation war from the Portuguese ruling. They became independent in 1975 and basically in 1976-1977 the civil war broke out and lasted until 2002. 

It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola. The Russians, the Cubans and the Chinese were supporting the socialist communist side, and the Americans, the South Africans and some European countries, but less visibly so, were supporting the other side. We find mines from 22 different producing countries and that ties to who was fighting here. Both sides used mines.

An estimated one million landmines were laid in Angola. And many more explosive devices such as mortars, rockets, projectiles, handgrenades, airplane bombs, bullets, etc. were used during the fighting. The estimates are that from all the weapons used, any bullets, rockets, grenades, all the things that have explosives in them, between 10 and 30 % have never exploded. That’s still live ammunition and explosives lying in the fields, even if the war ended 20 years ago.

The landmines became prohibited in 1997, supported by Princess Diana who was one of the first internationally known people to give attention to this issue. We came a long way since the landmine ban treaty came into force now 22 years ago.

The goal at this moment, globally, is to be done with all landmines by 2025. But for countries such as Angola that is too ambitious with the current level of funding. We do think that it could be done in about 10 years.

The role of women

“It’s the women who go fetch the water”

girls pumping water

In Angola, the warring parties were fighting for power over bridges and access to water, to fertile land, to the diamond mines and to the oil fields. So the area where you find the prime land and the best access to water, those are the ones that tend to be the most contaminated with landmines. They were the most strategic in the conflict.

We still have a lot of minefields to pick from. So, which one do you clear first? We go for those groups that are the most marginalized by the fact that they are surrounded by weapons. Then, within these populations, it’s the women who go fetch the water. So that’s our first priority.

Often, villages are far away from the nearest water point, up to 7 km away, because landmines keep them from building their houses and their farm close to the water. If we clear those minefields, that means that women -and therefore their daughters- can stop wasting their life walking to and from the river.

If you look at the UNHCR indicators, 20 liters per person per day is the absolute minimum to keep yourself and your home clean, to drink, to cook, etc. Families are big in our part of the world. On average, every fertile woman gives birth to 8 children. So in those communities, if you have a family of, let’s say 10 people, they need 200 liters per day. If that is 7 km away that means women need to bring at least 2 or 3 daughters with them to be able to do that during daylight. So all these things tie into girls not going to school. 

If you are pregnant and walking for water all the time, there is no chance to do anything else. You can’t grow produce for the market, you can’t send your children to school and chances to make an income are slim to none. So we try to liberate the access to water as soon as possible, and then after that, land for housing and agriculture and cattle farming, etc.

We have 2 rapid response teams that are EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialists and they are busy day in and day out. Even if we have been working here for 25 years, they still have more than enough to do. They leave the base every day.

Building Confidence in Women

“A large part of what we do is also confidence building”

woman tending to a field in Angola

Another big part of what we do is mine risk education in which we teach local populations what to pay attention to, how to mark an item if they find it and not to touch it for obvious reasons and how to contact us so we can come and remove it.

Clearance is the most expensive part of our job because it is literally meter by meter with detectors or machines and that is very slow. But the main purpose of landmine clearance is to do it in such a way that, obviously you remove all the mines, but you also take away the fear from the local population. So, a large part of what we do is confidence building. So when we are done clearing a minefield, we invite all the community, all the people in power, local police and army, our team, if possible I join myself and everybody sees (I am one of the very few white women in a thousand kilometers around!) that we all walk in and around the cleared former minefield with confidence.

It’s like a whole strategy, there is a whole system of confidence building behind it, because you can clear everything, if the population doesn’t trust that you did, they are not going to use it and then, why did you clear it?

Turning war into opportunity

“28% of our staff is female”

women on a field in Africa

We have 215 people on the payroll at this moment, and 28% of our staff is female, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is! Because we come from less than 10% 5 years ago. This was a very male dominated industry until rather recently, but MAG is making massive efforts to get more women involved in landmine clearance, so we are moving in the right direction.

You can imagine in a society that is very male dominated to begin with, us coming and going “yes, we want female deminers”, that was not a natural development! It took a lot of talking to pass that bridge of sexism.I knew that we had an uphill battle to get the guys to accept that the women were easily as good -if not better- than several of them, and that worked really well.

We spent a lot of time training people on how to behave properly in a team and where to go if they feel like they are being harassed by a coworker. That is not just the message that the women receive, the men also.

We had a few examples of guys not listening and they lost their jobs because of it. And that made the rest of them more careful. And the women felt like they were heard. If they came to complain, we would not try to make the problem go away, we would actually address it and it would have consequences for the ones who crossed the line.

The women feel properly protected and the guys are growing into the system, they recognize that their female colleagues are actually really good at what they do. 

Put up with nothing

“I’ve seen all the nonsense!”

woman standing at her home in Africa

For me, at the beginning when I was establishing my own network and building the contacts it did take a while for some of the guys to understand that I did know what I was talking about. What did help with that is that I am Dutch and I am very straightforward. I’m 1,80 meters so I’m taller than most people here, and I don’t try to be charming. I am very business-wise.

That takes time because of the business culture and the way things are done here, but I’m 5 years in this job, and 10 years in Angola. People now know that I do know what I’m talking about.

But it’s definitely an uphill battle, that’s for sure. We are nowhere near where we should be with that. Personal connections are key in doing business here. Every time somebody gets promoted we have to go through the whole song and dance again, with the new big General basically person in a position of power sometimes misbehaving and being a bit impolite and me just standing my ground, or sometimes they just want to talk to my male assistant and not to me. I’ve seen all the nonsense! But very patiently, we just keep rolling with the punches and I am having my seat at the table!

A problem off the radar

“It is difficult to keep donors interested”

kids in Angola community

What is lacking at the moment is funding. That is something that we are trying to increase. There are so many countries at the moment who have landmine trouble, including new open conflicts such as Yemen, Syria, Irak and South Sudan. Those countries are what we call in full crisis, and that’s where the donor money tends to go. Countries like Angola are called “legacy countries”. We are trying to solve something that was done to the population 20 years ago and that feels less urgent if that makes sense. So, it is difficult to keep donors interested.

Private companies also provide funding, but most of it is still coming from governments. I have a couple of leads but we have to be careful and do our due diligence to see if they are not into blood diamonds and humanitarian disasters. We are very careful because you can’t take money from bad organizations or bad people.

Obviously, a lot of countries which are still struggling with landmines are in the developing world. So the landmines are not their only problems, they also have problems with schooling, health, national resources crisis, etc. there are a lot of things that need funding and attention. So we are very happy that Angola is spending a lot of money now on clearing their landmines but we are still heavily dependent on outside resources to get the job done. 

The international community has agreed 22 years ago that the world needed to be cleared of all landmines, so it’s very much an international effort to get it done.

Traveling Deaf and Fearless

“I tear down preconceived misconceptions that people with disabilities ‘cannot’. This concept drives me to show the world that the only thing a deaf person cannot do is hear.”

Meet Chelsea Lew, a 30-something American who is a force of solo travel inspiration. Its not because she happens to be deaf (although that makes her and her story even more amazing), she travels with a bravery and a resourcefulness that define the solo female traveler spirit.

This interview is part of her story.

Chelsea Lew in Bali

Give us a sense of how much you travel in your life.

How does a nomad answer this question? Let me put it this way. My mom texted me recently and said she was going through her phone and trying to delete information that was not relevant. She counted 43 residences/addresses for me since I graduated college in 2009. This doesn’t include where I was living/staying when abroad. 

I’m Jewish, so when we turn 12/13, we celebrate becoming adults. Most people have big parties, almost like a wedding. My dad asked me, do you want a party or do you want to go to Africa. Um, forget the party, let’s get my passport ready!

When was your first solo trip? Where did you go and what were some challenges and amazing moments? 

I guess my first “adult” solo trip where I didn’t fly with anyone I knew or to meet up with anyone I knew would be to Portugal in 2009. Amazing moments included exploring on MY itinerary and at MY pace, whenever and wherever I wanted and eating unlimited pastries without judgement. 

Remember my comment about preconceived notions? Even though I’m deaf, I’m actually proficient in Spanish. In college, a second language proficiency is required to graduate, and my advisor said I can waive it because of my disability. I said NO, I want to go through the same experience everyone else did, so I continued my studies from high school in Spanish. Even though they speak Portuguese in Portugal, having some experience with reading lips in a foreign language helped me so much to communicate with the locals. It was a challenge, because I already struggle reading lips in English, now try reading lips in a foreign language, with an accent! 

I also couldn’t hear the bus or train announcements. Not all transportation systems have LED screens for you to read where you are and where you are going. I definitely got lost often and made a lot of mistakes. It’s also a challenge not coming across as being rude. If someone is behind me and says ‘excuse me,’ obviously it’s going to look like I’m standing my ground. I just got to ignore it and keep smiling. 

Chelsea Lew Featured Member

For most people, going to a country where they don’t speak the language is intimidating. Do you feel you have any extra challenges communicating when traveling?

I thrive on challenges, I’m fluent in ASL and I love charades. I got this! Communication doesn’t always have to be verbal. There are so many ways to express yourself, your needs and your goals. The language barrier doesn’t affect me. Instead it’s my FOMO due to my extroverted nature that I feel held back. it’s the inability to eavesdrop and jump in on conversations especially at hostels or during group activities. 

When someone hearing is with me and understands my situation, they help fill in the gaps so I can be part of conversations, but when I’m by myself I have to be extra and random to draw attention and approach people. I like to think that being deaf actually gives me the advantage over hearing people when traveling. I’m already so comfortable letting people know “hey, repeat that please” or “I don’t understand”. I’ve noticed many hearing people are scared to speak up about this and leave confused. I’m also comfortable pulling out my phone or pen and paper to write things down, I’m comfortable holding up lines until all my needs are fulfilled, I’m already super patient and I’m more visually aware to catch on small things others can’t. I can ALWAYS find Waldo.  

Being deaf while traveling also has its perks. Admission to many places are free (everywhere in Japan) and I’m allowed to cut the line. Hello no ticket needed for the Louve. Walked right in despite the 3 hour wait.

Does being deaf impact your travel choices?

That’s a flat out no.

I travel to music concerts even though I’m deaf, I go scuba diving even though there is risk for the implant after a certain number of feet, I climb and rapel mountains and canyons even though I can’t hear or see my belay partner, I rent/drive cars even if I can’t hear them honking at me. 

I mentioned the issue with public transport and lack of hearing announcements. This is really my biggest deaf challenge all in all. I’ve missed so many flights, buses, trains over the years because of this, but I’ve learned to adapt as I go. My second biggest challenge doesn’t impact my travel choices but it’s made me aware of a limitation that I will always have; navigating through and driving scooters. I’m also trying my hardest not to die when I cross streets.

Chelsea Lew Featured Member Holi

What are your future travel plans?

I’ve just built out my Toyota Rav4 into a camper car, and I’ll be leaving this month on a socially distanced, solo road trip around the country! I really like to wing things so I will start with Colorado and Utah and work my way up, around and about. Depending how the borders open up, I would love to continue exploring the world again. I work remotely full time for a deaf non-profit and am allowed to work anywhere in the world, so I’m truly grateful to have the capability to be the master of my own adventures in life. 

What message would you like to pass on to our community?

Direct your energy to those that want to be part of the solution.

This might seem way off point, but I say this because life is a struggle. Life as a woman is a struggle. Life as a woman who is part of a minority group (whether it’s your religion or disability or race or sexual preference) is a struggle. Life as a SOLO woman when everyone is questioning your intentions, reasons, capabilities is a struggle. Don’t let who you are and what you want hold you back. Don’t accept “you can’t” or “you’ll fail”. Surround yourself by people who say “you can” and “you will”. Don’t doubt yourselves and you can achieve anything you want. Ask me how I will support you, and I only ask of you to reciprocate that sense of respect. 

Follow Chelsea’s journey:

From Small Town Girl to Traveling US Navy Officer

I’m from an incredibly small town in Mississippi, USA, and for most of my life I rarely even left the East Coast, let alone out of the country. I spent my days with the same people in my tiny town and didn’t have much exposure to different cultures or world views. The people around me were comfortable sticking to their hometown and took comfort in sticking close to home, almost defining themselves with the set values and beliefs that were rarely challenged. 

featured member in hammock Teresa

The rigidity in this small town ideation always bothered me. I knew there was more out there, and I wanted – no needed – to experience it.  I left home at the age of 17 to start college at The United States Naval Academy. Even after 4 years of study there, I had yet to even go West of the Mississippi River. At 21, I finally got to leave the East Coast! I traveled west with the military and had my first assignment on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii. I spent two years there.  While the island is still considered the United States, the immediate change in lifestyle, culture, and scenery immediately made me yearn for more.  I had never known such beauty to be in existence and I was floored at the magnificence.

Shortly after I arrived in Hawaii, the military deployed me on a ship to the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and Red Sea. Military ships are able to pull into ports sometimes in order to give the crew some rest while building international relations with the host country.  This was the first time I had truly left the United States. I was able to visit Singapore, Bahrain, Israel, and Thailand during my seven-month deployment at sea. 

This was just the beginning for me.

The country that changed my view of the world forever was Israel. You could say it was because it was the first country further out of my comfort zone. Maybe it was the magic of the city, but Jerusalem opened my eyes, my heart, and my mind.

I was heading towards the Wailing Wall when all of the sudden I heard the Muslim call to prayer happening over the whole city. All of the sudden, in one swift moment, people were emerging from everywhere.  Before I knew it, I was completely engulfed in a sea of Muslims making their way to the Mosque. It was so peaceful. They followed the call and I watched as hundreds of worshippers passed by me.

Once we got to the Wailing Wall, there were hundreds of Jews held their hands up to the wall and prayed. Rows deep, some would sit holding the Torah awaiting their turn at the wall and once they reached the front they slipped their hand-written prayer into the cracks between the centuries old stones.  

I just watched all of these people, wearing different clothing, muttering different prayers, and living a totally different life than anything I had ever experienced. It was magnificent to me. Eye opening. An epiphany.  Within moments of each other, I had been completely immersed into two of the world’s major religions. Every stereotype and preconceived notion I had conjured up over the years disappeared.

featured member US Navy officer

Fast forward four years later, the Navy offered me a job in Spain for two years and I couldn’t pass it up.  My current job primarily deals with building international relations in a maritime setting around Europe and Africa.  I’ve been so fortunate to travel with my job and help encourage and build everlasting relations amongst militaries in the surrounding area.  While stationed in Europe, I have visited 27 countries in 18 months.  I’ve delved into cultures I didn’t quite know existed anymore.  My ignorance has diminished, and my mind has expanded.  I’ve eaten delicious food all across the continent but the best part- I’ve met incredible and amazing people and travelers who yearn to see the world and who have taught me a thing or two along the way.

This fall, I will start a new job in the Navy as I become a Public Affairs Officer stationed in San Diego, California.  There I will be working in journalism and photography for the Navy. My road to seeing the world is far from over.

I’ve been so fortunate to be in an occupation that both allows and supports my travels. However you are able to travel, my wish for you future travelers out there is to have at least one moment that leaves you awed, humbled, and inspired. Mine was in Jerusalem…where will yours be?

See more of Teresa’s travel on Instagram.

Umoja: The Samburu’s Women Only Village

Umoja is a village located in northern Kenya, close to Archer’s Post. What is so special about it? Its inhabitants. Indeed, this community was created by women, for women only. 

In practice, that means only women and children are allowed to live in Umoja. Men are banned from entering the community. Actually, traditions remain strong in the area, and with it, patriarchy and gender based violence (GBV). But where you can find patriarchy, you often find resistance. This is what Umoja – which means Unity in Swahili – is all about.

This village was created 30 years ago by Rebecca Lolosoli, a local Samburu woman from the Rift Valley, along with 14 survivors of GBV and promotes sisterhood above all else. Today, it shelters about 50 women and 200 children, all survivors.

A dire situation for women in the Samburu region

Family in Kenya

You might think that completely cutting men out of your life might be a little extreme. But the women of Umoja felt like it was the only way to be safe and free.

Gender based violence is extremely prevalent in the area (even more so compared to the rest of Kenya). Early marriages and female genital mutilations (FGM) are a very common occurrence for Samburu women, as well as rape. Rape victims often refuse to speak up because they face retributions for bringing “shame” to their community.

That was the case of Jane, 38, current resident of Umoja. She recalls: “I felt so ashamed and could not talk about it. I eventually told my husband’s mother. When she told my husband, he beat me with a cane. So I disappeared and came here with my children.

It is very difficult for them to seek change, as they are usually not allowed to participate in the decision making process. Without any kind of leadership, it is very challenging to introduce cultural change. According to Naguei, one of the founders of the village, “In Samburu culture, we say that women are the neck and men are the head.”

Even if women are brave enough to stand up for themselves, speaking up can be very dangerous, as Rebecca Lolosoli would tell you. When she spoke up in favor of the women in her community, she was brutally beaten by some men in her village. “I started talking about helping 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, so I realized I could be killed, so I left.”

The creation of Umoja

Ceremony Women in Kenya

Lolosoli faced a brutal refusal to address women’s issues in her community. Facing danger herself, she opted for a more radical solution: secession!

She gathered 14 women who had been victims of GBV and created Umoja. In the past, all of these women had been ostracized by their community because of what they had suffered. But led by Lolosoli, they refused to simply accept their fate. The government gave them an abandoned land, and their new journey began: they built a haven for women in need of protection.

Residents of Umoja are victims of rape, forced early marriage, FGM, or domestic abuse. Like Memusi: “I was traded for cows by my father when I was 11 years old, my husband was 57.”

If the stories of the women of Umoja can be very hard to stomach, their lives and their journey now, is truly inspiring and a cause for hope.  

In Umoja, women feel safe and can rely on each other to live. In other words, they gave to patriarchy the best possible answer: sisterhood! Like Judia: “Every day I wake up and smile because I am surrounded by help and support.” Or Rosalna: “If I had not come here, I don’t know what my life would be. I probably would have undergone female genital mutilation and gotten married off as a second or third wife to an older man. These women raised me, allowed me to have an education and defied all those traditions.

As you can see, this village is not just a safe place for women, it is basically a revolution.

How do things work in Umoja?

The women of Umoja earn their income with tourism. They are managing a campsite close to the village where tourists can stay overnight. If they wish to visit the village, they have to pay a small fee. Once in Umoja, tourists can buy traditional beaded jewelry created by women.

All the money earned by these women is then pooled, and redistributed equally by Rebecca Lolosoli, according to the size of each household. The extra money is then used to pay for the needs of the community: education for the children, emergency fund, etc.

But that’s not it! Those unstoppable women also have advocacy programs for girls of surrounding villages. They go to neighboring communities and inform women and girls about their rights regarding early marriage or FGM.

Are women really safe in Umoja?

Mother and child in women only village

Of course, such powerful women, managing to live on their own, are not to everyone’s liking. Indeed, men of the surrounding communities are not all on board. In fact, Rebecca Lolosoli often receives threats because of her activities.

But it will take more to deter these women. “I have no regrets for what I have done. In fact, I am proud that I contributed towards betterment of other people’s lives. I will march on until men recognize and respect the human being called woman and her role in society,” says Rebecca.

In order to protect the women of Umoja, fences surround the village. But it is not rare for men to try to enter. However, as soon as one is spotted, women call the local police to have him removed.

So you might wonder, are male tourists allowed in? Well yes! According to Rebecca Lolosoli, “Men are forbidden to live in the village, but may visit as long as they behave and abide by the women’s rules.”

But then, if only women are allowed to live in the village, how come there are so many children born in Umoja? Simple: women are allowed to maintain relationships with men outside of the village. According to Lelumbe, “If I want a baby, I can go out to get one.” Simple, right?

Is Umoja the only village of this kind?

women only village ceremony in Kenya

The idea behind Umoja has been emulated, and nowadays, there are a few women-only villages in the area. Indeed, not all women are completely in tune with Rebecca Lolosoli’s vision.

Most of those villages have been created by former residents of Umoja, who wanted a safe place for women, but with different rules. It is for example the case of Nang’ida (which means happiness), where men are allowed, only if they abide by women’s rules. That means, for example, that the chores are chosen freely, and not according to gender.

This idea seems to be spreading in the area, where women are choosing the rules they want to live by.

If you are a female solo traveler, you probably have dreamt about this kind of place. A place created by women for women, ruled by sisterhood. If some view this solution as extreme, or even unhelpful in terms of cultural change, we have to view it as the women in Umoja do: a necessity.

Traumatized women can come to Umoja to seek shelter, even if just for a while, to rebuild, rehabilitate, and simply keep on living surrounded by sisters. Refusing to mix with the other sex is not a luxury for Samburu women, it is considered the only way to truly be free. As long as gender based violence is alive and well (and it surely is in the area), then women will have to find a way to protect themselves, even if it means isolating from men.

 

 

Solo Female Tour Kenya

Visit Kenya with us!

Get ready to go home with bragging rights never before as you tour the heart of Africa. From safari sightings of rare wild animals to experiencing the deeply rooted culture of local Kenyan tribes.