Scattered across Kenya‘s rift valley, women of Umoja come from separate Samburu villages, yet they share one common feature: all of them are victims of men’s world.
The timeless truth of women’s lives is oppression by the structure designed by a male dominated guild where women are sequestered within the walls of rigidly defined roles, meticulously tailored for them by their oppressors. While males sit on the throne of privileges, women can be domineered and their position reduced to the subordinate of the self-acclaimed superior gender. In a regressive societal design like this, imagining a construction of matriarchal societies where women, literally, command and control all the social, political, and economical matters that directly concerns their lives, is especially hard. However, if we turn back the pages of history, we would come across many examples of powerful matriarchal societies. Some of them even surviving today. But, this 1990 founded Kenyan village deserves a different place in our consciousness, as women here not only diverged from the unapologetic pervasive patriarchal architecture, but have created a safe haven, away from their oppressors – it is the village of Umoja, or as it is famously called ‘The Land of no Men’.
Girded by a protective fence of thorns and barbed wires, Umoja – which means “unity” in Swahili, is a village in the grasslands of Samburu, some 380 kilometers far from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. The village was originally founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli, a Samburu woman, along with 14 other women who were survivors of rape by British soldiers. Umoja has since expanded its population by sheltering any woman escaping child marriage, female genital mutation (FGM), domestic violence and rape, which are some primary cultural norms amongst the Samburu. Today, there are 47 women and some 200 children living in Umoja.
Samburu community have avouched patriarchy for over 500 years in northern Kenya. The Samburu – a sub-tribe of the famous Maasai people, are semi-nomadic pastoralist. This major African tribe has for years encompassed its women under severe rules. Generally regarded as the property of their husbands, Samburu women having nothing to call “rights”. They are not allowed the ownership of lands and animals, they are frequently subjected to crimes like forced marriage to much older men, spousal rapes, female genital mutation, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. During the 1990s, there were many cases of rape reportedly committed by British soldiers. A case for over 1400 Samburu women who claimed to be raped was filed against military, but was cleared. However, these alleged sexual violations threw many women in the continues cycle of beating by their husbands, as they were considered to have brought “shame” and “indignity” to their spouses. 14 of those women found themselves to be shunned by their husbands, and homeless. Rebecca Lolosoli‘s attempt to help these women by educating them about their rights ended her up in a hospital as she was beaten for speaking up. While recovering in the hospital Lolosoli got the idea of Umoja, a female-only village, so along with the 14 other homeless women, she left her husband, and fled her village to begin a new journey. Now in the deserts surrounding Mount Kenya thrives a matriarchal society, incessantly prospering and growing.
These women sustain themselves by making traditional Samburu crafts and beaded jewelries which they sell to the tourist visiting the village. They charge a modest entry fees, and provide accommodation at a nearby campsite for a small charge. Unlike a typical Samburu village, women here are the owners of their purse, they keep the money they earn from their business ventures and financially support themselves. They also have their own primary school where they can accommodate around 50 students, and now they have opened a nursery school, too. The decisions of the town are taken under the “tree of speech”, where the opinion of every women is considered. Lolosoli serves as the chairman of the village, but all women have equal status to one another. Also, these women now own the land they are living on. This is certainly the beginning of the much-needed societal change for Kenya. Umoja routinely receives threats from men envious of seeing women independent and prospering on their own. Most of these threats come from abandoned husbands who want their wives back into obsequious servility of them. Rebecca stands at the vanguard of these threats as the founder of the village, but she remains undeterred and continues to vouch for equality.
As for men, they are permitted to visit the village but they are not allowed to stay. Only men who have been raised as children in Umoja are allowed to sleep in the village. Women here can choose their own husband, that is if they want to marry. They can have partners, whilst staying in Umoja, just that those men are not allowed inside the village. They do not live a life of isolation, these women can have romantic, social, and normal human relationships outside. Umoja is an example of undaunted courage by women fed up of violent patriarchy. In Umoja, these women matter, they are the owner of their lives, the head of their homes, and the supporter of their community. They are flourishing, growing, learning – away from men and their rules.
Nuzhat Khan is a student pursuing English Honors from Jamia Millia Islamia.