In Kenya in 1990, Rebecca Lolosoli and 14 other women who had been raped by stationed British soldiers created the village of Umoja in the district of Samburu. What started out as a safe-haven for other victims of violence and those escaping forced marriages has become a fully self-sufficient woman-only village, with the women taking charge of the economy, educating their children and building and maintaining their homes.
Lolosoli serves as the matriarch of the village and has always been an advocate for women’s rights. Prior to forming Umoja Lolosoli, who was married, spoke vocally against rape, which angered men in her village. She was beaten so badly that she required hospitalization, and when she discovered that husband did not protest her attack, she left him:
“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.”
Inside the Umoja Village
Today, the village is home to 47 women and 200 children. The women in the village have created a self-sustaining economy by selling traditional Samburu beadwork jewelry and hosting their village as a tourist attraction. Through their trade, the women are able to fund a primary school.
And there are absolutely no men allowed! Lolosoli explains:
“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.”
Not Everyone Approves
Although, the village of Umoja has flourished, the patriarchal idea of subordinating women is still rampant outside its walls, and the women often face obstruction.
“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.
Many Samburu steadfastly uphold the Samburu tradition of female genital mutilation (women are not allowed to marry unless they have been circumcised), forced marriages and financial dependency.
The Trickle-Down Effect: Additional Woman-Led Villages appear
Nachami is another village which that is fully matriarchal. Unlike Umoja, men are allowed to reside there only if they reject the traditional ideas of Samburu culture.
Supalake is also a matriarchal village where gender roles have been switched. Women are decision makers while men tackle laborious tasks.
Room For Change
Some Umoja residents doubt the outside-residing Samburu will change their traditional views on gender roles. But women inside the village continue to progress, with many fully rejecting marriage in favor of self-sufficieny.
To learn more about the Umoja villages check out the following documentaries:
What do you think of Umoja?