About six hours from Nairobi is the little village of Umoja. The dusty plains are golden in the light of day and farm animals roam in the sweltering heat. A babble of children’s laughter fills the air. Adorned in vibrantly coloured Samburu clothes and necklaces, women go about their mundane chores. It looks like any other community in Kenya, with the exception of one marked difference – no men live in Umoja.
Africa frequently comes under heavy criticism for its patriarchal traditions and subordinate roles that are enforced on women. Yet, Umoja’s system is matriarchal – one that has continued to prosper and strive.
The Samburu – a sub-tribe of the famous Maasai people – have strict rules that govern women. Samburu women are generally regarded as the property of their husbands and have little rights. They are not allowed ownership of things such as land or animals, and are subjected to forced marriages to much older men, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. During the 1990s, there were numerous rapes reportedly committed by British soldiers in the region. A case for over 1,400 Samburu women, who claimed to be raped, was filed against the military. Following this spate of alleged sexual violations, women said that their husbands beat them due to the taboo attributed to rape. They were chased from their homes for bringing shame and dishonour to their spouses. Rebecca Lolosoli was also one of those to receive a severe beating from her husband.
When a handful of them found themselves facing homelessness, Lolosoli came up with the idea of a sanctuary for those who were fleeing sexual and domestic violence. In 1990, she founded Umoja, which means “unity” in Swahili. Word soon spread about the all-female safe haven; more women – who travelled from far and wide – started to turn up with their children to seek refuge. Before long, Umoja was home to a mélange of outcasts – those fleeing genital mutilation, child marriages, rape, violence, abusive marriages, and other social norms that infringed upon basic human rights.
“We are always under men,” explained Lolosoli, the chief of Umoja, in an interview with the NY Times. “The men treat us like nothing. You are there to give them children. We’re like property, and we’re mistreated.” “We’ve seen so many changes in these women,” she added. “They’re healthier and happier. They dress well. They used to have to beg. Now, they’re the ones giving out food to others.” According to Samburu tradition, there is no such thing as divorce. From time to time, a husband still wanders into Umoja – unannounced and livid – demanding that his wife returns home. When he gets disgruntled or aggressive, the solution is simple – the local authorities are called and he is promptly removed.
“Sometimes a man will come in and want to beat his wife,” said Lolosoli. “He’ll see that the woman’s earning some money and wearing nice clothes. She’ll always tell him to go away. You should see his face when she says, ‘I don’t need you anymore.” Over the years, the women have stared adversity in the eye. Men from neighbouring villages have brought court cases against them, and in 2009, Lolosoli’s husband, armed with a gun, charged into the village – intent on killing her and anyone else who stood in his way. Yet, the women have remained steadfast and their will has never wavered.
Although they live frugally, they have been enterprising and resourceful when it comes to sustaining their livelihood. To supplement an income, they run a tourist campsite adjacent to where safaris travel through. Many of these visitors are often curious to see the fabled village where women wield absolute power in a largely male-dominated nation. A small entry fee is charged to those wishing to visit. And the women of Umoja craft and sell traditional flamboyant jewellery, which their visitors often purchase. The village now has its own school. And importantly, the women of Umoja own the land that they are on.