Umoja: A Village where Women Rule
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Along the Uaso Nyiro river, Kenya, a small village is dotted with Manyattas – traditional Samburu huts. Manyattas are made of wood, twigs and cow dung, echoing an organic and sustainable approach to living. This village is characterized by a sizeable community, forged by strong bonds of sisterhood. Circles of women gathered together in conversations that are full of laughter and life are testimonies to the resilience of the community spirit. This setting is typical of Samburu village except for one curious detail: no men live here.
Located near the town of Archers Post in Kenya’s Samburu County, this all-female matriarchal village is where women rule and men are not allowed to live. Founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli, Umoja is thriving and growing, with 47 women and 200 children as of 2015, as per a report by the Guardian.
A staunch advocate for women’s rights and the village matriarch, Lolosoli grew up amidst a Samburu tribe. She aspired to attend nursing school but was forced to drop out because of a lack of financial means. After she was married off at the age of 18, Rebecca began to speak out against patriarchal customs and traditions that she grew up witnessing in her culture. She wished to help rape victims gain a voice which often led to severe beatings from neighborhood men who wished to subdue her and oppress her into compliance. When her husband did not condemn or stop the beatings, Lolosoli left him and envisioned a women-only community. Justifying the Swahili meaning of Umoja (unity), this women’s village is the collective effort of several women who are survivors of violence. Umoja’s population has now expanded to include any women escaping child marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu.Umoja’s first members all came from the isolated Samburu villages dotted across the nearby river and valley. Since then, women and girls who hear of the refuge come and learn how to trade, raise their children and live without fear of male violence and discrimination. While neither a defined social hierarchy nor a set-in-stone leadership model exists, the women of Umoja do consider Rebecca to be the go-to authority figure.
To sustain themselves, the women of Umoja sell beadwork, colourful necklaces, bracelets and accessories. Additionally, the village is open to visits from tourists. The raised revenue is given to the village’s matriarch, who then allocates the amount for food to each family based on the number of children per homestead. A portion of that money is also set aside to go toward education, especially for the young girls.3
The jewellery can also be found online and is available to purchasers from around the world, a component which constitutes a significant proportion of the village’s income. Visitors are charged a modest entrance fee and are encouraged to visit craft center and purchase their handmade beadworks. Jackson Vanharte, the Umoja Jewellery Interim Manager, says that the jewellery and bead-work is an important aspect of the Samburu culture that they wished to retain. Since the colors and designs of the beads are often symbolic and used to convey social status, wealth, marital status etc., requests for purchasing head-pieces or collar necklaces aren’t entertained.4 He also remarks that the jewellery is almost an extension of the Umoja women’s identity – a physical manifestation of their cultures, traditions and beliefs.
When they started selling the jewellery, Rebecca explains that the men would beat up the women and take away their money. With the ability to generate income, women found independence – something that the men were not happy about.5 In addition to selling jewelry, the women get income by operating a campsite for touristsafaris to the nearby Samburu National Reserve. They also receive donations from well-wishers, philanthropists, humanitarians and donors worldwide.
Using the money earnt, the Umoja community built a school for their children (open to children from neighboring villages also) and eventually purchased the land they live on.Jackson elucidates that long-standing sponsorship relationships with NGOs in Germany have given the women of Umoja financial aid, which contributes towards paying salaries for teachers and infrastructure in the schools – theUmoja Muehlbauer Academy. This financial help has also enabled the women drill a well in the center of the village and sell this water to nearby villages. The well has contributed to improved sanitation and living conditions for women in the village as well as their farming/agricultural endeavors.5
When it comes to the rules for men in the village, sons are welcome as long as they do not try to dominate the women and are willing to follow village rules. Although grown men aren’t allowed to stay in Umoja, women are open to relationships with them. It isn’t surprising to know that many young women who grew up in Umoja have sworn off men completely or are sure that they would never marry or remarry. Angry husbands occasionally come to Umoja, searching for their wives.Jackson explains that, in the past, men have tried to ambush the village and demand that their wives come back. However,over the years, after seeing the Umoja women’s track record for not only keeping their people safe but also keeping unwelcome men out, such instances have reduced drastically and are now a rare occurrence. In addition,Jackson explains that from a logistical perspective, the encircling river protects the village and a perimeter of cobblestone wall covered by thorny bushes, preventslions and other wild life. To protect themselves and ensure their own safety and security, the women stay up all night in shifts and stay on guard. However, the Umoja women don’t really need physical forms of protection- after nearly 30 years of existence, it has become a cultural and societal norm to simply leave these women alone.
Within Kenya, Rebecca has played a major role in accelerating and furthering the movement for gender equality. Nachami, a similar neighboring village and product of Umoja’s wide-reaching influence, is one of the many women’s villages among a growing networkin this area of the Samburu region. Mary, the chairlady says that men still live here but women have the overriding power because it is just the women who brought the men here. She further says that men must reject traditional Samburu principles and agree to a new way of thinking, if they wish to live here. In another neighboring village, Supalake, gender roles are differentiated. Men carry out physical labour while women make the rules. Marienne, the chairlady,says “We don’t give men power. If we give men the chance, they will spoil it”.4
4 – Interview with Jackson Vanharte, 18th June 2019
5 – Broadly’s documentary on Umoja, “The Land of No Men: Inside Kenya’s Women-Only Village“, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrnmBLB-UX4