The Gender Security Project
Tumai – A village that springs hope
Updated: May 22, 2021
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Taking inspiration from women-only villages such as Umoja, Kenya, many others have popped up in neighbouring regions. Tumai, which means hope in Swahili, is one such village, founded by Chile who had previously lived in Umoja. Chile is also responsible for running the only primary school in the village. Since 2001, Tumai has become the home for upwards of 60 women from the Samburu and Turkana tribes who have been divorced, abused or suffered from domestic violence. Tumai has also provided refuge to survivors of rape from British soldiers situated in camps a few kilometers from the village.
No tolerance for violence: overt or structural
Tumai began with 30 women from the Samburu and Turkana tribes led by Chile, deciding to leave their abusive husbands to begin their lives on their own. Registered as “Tumai,” which means hope in Swahili, the core value in their establishment is zero tolerance for violence of any kind. Like Umoja, which Chile lived in before founding Tumai, the village has been declared as a “violence-against-women-free” zone.
Refuting structural violence, Tumai is secular, horizontal, non-hierarchal, and inclusive. The children are primarily related to their mothers, bear her name and live in her clan house, and property is inherited from mother to daughter. However, Tumai is not a traditional matriarchal society – rather, it is a modern idea of women who have made the conscious decision to take control over their lives – even if it means struggling in the process. Residents practice the principle of sharing – where whatever little exists in the village is distributed equally among everyone. In short, this village is the antithesis of all things patriarchy.
Refuting structural and cultural violence, Tumai is heavily poised against all forms of violence against women, especially genital mutilation, circumcision, and excision. These practices are banned because most of the adults believe it to be a regressive custom. Chile herself was a survivor of genital mutilation, which was performed on her when she was a mere child of seven.
Life in Tumai
The village was founded and established using the principles of a participatory democracy. Every decision that affects the lives of the inhabitants of the village is put to vote and the women make their decisions through a vote with a show of hands. This includes decisions about selling chicken, buying cotton fabric from Archer’s Post or sending their students to primary school. All the decisions which concern the community are subject to a vote after being thoroughly debated and discussed in an assembly. Even a vetoed idea is treated with respect and there is little dissent.
The only rule which was adopted unanimously is that any woman who wants to be integrated into the village must be divorced. Upon their arrival, many women perceive the village to be a temporary retreat or escape but end up staying because it offers them a chance at a new and independent life. Although each woman in Tumai comes with her own baggage and personal history, she is welcomed unconditionally. Together, these women have built a tight-knit community over the years.
At the inception, women arrived with the intent of seeing it as a temporary retirement – though many stayed on to give their daughters a new lease of life. To earn their income and sustain themselves, the families of Tumai make and sell bead accessories (necklaces and bracelets), decorated wooden statues, simple weapons such as shields, spears and traditional swords called simis and bronze and iron jewellery. Also among the best-selling items include blankets made from local fabrics in the traditional blue, red and black colours. Their trinkets are very popular among tourists who are attracted to the small shops which dot the entrance of the village. For each item sold, 90% of the money goes to the creator and the remaining 10% goes towards the betterment of the community, including healthcare or secondary education for the students. The women of Tumai have been struggling under a crisis after the riots in December 2007 in relation to the Kenyan elections. They lived on the proceeds from the sale of their arts and crafts to tourists – but with the reduction in the number of visitors around them, sales took a beating.
Children are educated up to primary school in Tumai. For higher studies, they go over to the closest town. The children are taught both English and Swahili in the village, learning to write by writing and erasing what they learn in the sandy soil with their fingers.
According to the detailed accounts of Nadia Ferroukhi, a photographer who had the chance to visit Tumai and interact with the women extensively, the residents of Tumai are completely self-sufficient. Whatever little there is in the village is distributed equally. They bend gender roles and don’t conform to the traditional roles set out for them in society by rearing their own goats, building huts, hunting and performing their sacred rituals – tasks usually taken up by men in the Samburu tribe. Young girls are encouraged to study At the nearby Archer’s Post village, the men refer to these women as the “lionesses of the bush”, nevertheless extend their respect.
Men and Tumai
Despite liberating themselves from men and choosing to live without them, the women of Tumai don’t wish to be labelled as “man-haters”. They have nothing against men but do condemn the “violent attempts to dominate them”.
Boys are permitted into the village but must leave when they turn 16 for either higher studies or for finding work. While they are permitted to come visit the village or stay over for a night, they are not allowed to stay in Tumai for the long-term. Sexual relations with men are allowed and do exist, but only outside the village. Only two young men who are 18 years old are allowed to live in the village where they act as guardians. Their mission is to protect the community, stay vigilant during the nights and fend off wild animals. They also train dogs who defend the village against “jealous men and wild hyenas”.
For these women, Tumai is a horizon of liberty.