Umoja: The Samburu’s Women Only Village

By Camille Monfort
Posted on

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.

 

 

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