Umoja – The Male-free Village on Kenyan Soil 

Can you fathom a world without men? If females could walk the streets at any time of day without dread, what kind of environment would it be? Females running the showing in all walks of life? Think about what it’d look and feel like if women didn’t have to worry over males harming them. Unbelievably, ‘Umoja’ is such a place in existence.

Wherever patriarchy persists, there is usually opposition. The women of Umoja are true champions of such a change. Although the experiences of these ladies might be difficult to bear, their lives and current path are genuinely inspiring and a source of hope.

In the Samburu grasslands of northern Kenya, there is a village that is rather unusual. There are really no males permitted in Umoja, which means “unity” in Swahili. The place is surrounded by a thorn barrier and only women live there. All males are prohibited from entering this all-women community in Kenya. It genuinely is a “no man’s land” created to give matriarchal shelter and a place of refuge for the region’s women. When a man trespasses, the local authorities are notified, and the perpetrator is either issued a warning or arrested, based on number of crimes.

It began as a refuge for 15 women who had been sexually abused by British servicemen in 1990 and had become stigmatised in their communities. Some rape victims claim that their spouses condemned them of bringing shame to their homes and evicted them. This safe haven for Samburu women is basically for those who had been sexually assaulted and had been driven out, deprived of their property and children, as well as those escaping child marriage or female genital mutilation (FGM). ‘Umoja’ was founded by Rebecca Lolosoli, who was expelled from her village and severely assaulted by a gang of men for speaking out against Female Genital Mutilation. When she was recuperating in the hospital, she came up with an idea to create a town where males were forbidden to live. Rebecca had to endure female genital mutilation at the age of 15 since it was a Wamba tribe tradition for each and every pubescent woman to go through the practice. Whilst she was 18, she was forced to marry Fabiano David Lolosoli, a Kenyan businessman, against her consent.

The Samburu tribe is semi-nomadic, highly polygamous, and closely connected to the Maasai tribe, which is also extremely patriarchal. As part of the Samburu tradition, young girls are compelled to tie the knot with older men as 2nd or 3rd wives in return for a dowry, which is handed to their family members. According to the Kenyan government’s National Aids Control Council, wife ownership and polygamy are socially accepted practices, and the society is patriarchal, thus women have little voice and are less empowered. It’s not uncommon for girls as young as nine or ten to become pregnant in the Samburu culture, according to the report. In the Samburu tribe, an estimated 73% of people are illiterate, with the overwhelming majority  of them being females, according to the National Aids Control Council. Additionally, village meetings are dominated by males who gather in a small circle to discuss significant village matters, while women sit on the outside and are only permitted to speak once in a while. According to UNICEF, 27% of girls in the nation are subjected to female genital mutilation, and 26% of females marry before the age of 18.

For more than 500 years, in this traditional culture, men have enjoyed complete authority over the women. However, Umoja , Kenya’s all-female village is an example of African burgeoning feminism. This community has expanded to provide refuge, a means of subsistence, and a way of life for any and all women attempting to flee genital mutilation, rape, domestic abuse, sexual assault, child marriage, etc., and deserves the highest level of respect. Even while it’s simple to read about women breaking the shackles of patriarchy, the underlying reality of such a subject is a continual battle. In Umoja now, there are around 50 females and 200 children, and they have built a self-sustaining business. Women and children live a simple life, earning a monthly salary to meet their basic requirements. With the village’s oldest inhabitant at 98 and its youngest at six months, Umoja ladies span generations. It is a sanctuary for girls and women, some of them are accompanied by infants. Among the children, the boys must leave the community when they are 18 years old. It is illegal for adult men to live in Umoja, yet women are open-minded about dating them despite the restrictions outside the village. As a result, many young females who grew up in Umoja have sworn off males or are certain they will never marry or remarry. Sometimes, angry men travel to Umoja in pursuit of their wives. As a means of self-protection and to secure their personal safety and security, the women work in turns throughout the night to keep watch. After over 30 years of operation, it’s although become culturally and societally acceptable to completely leave these ladies alone.

Visitors to the settlement of Umoja are charged an entry fee by the women of Umoja, who manage a campground for safari visitors. There is a craft centre in the hamlet where the women produce colourful beaded necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and other jewelry, which are sold to tourists and locals alike. The jewelry is also accessible online and to buyers from all over the world, and it accounts for a sizable amount of the village’s income. The community then receives 10% of each woman’s earnings as a tax. All of the income these women earn is then collected and divided evenly by Rebecca Lolosoli, depending on the size of each family. The surplus funds are then utilised to meet the community’s needs, such as children’s education, an emergency fund, and so on. The elder women frequently educate the younger generations about social norms they have managed to escape from, such as female genital mutilation and forced abortions. In addition, a school has been established on the Umoja women’s property, which is available to the surrounding villages. Not only are they making money from these pursuits, but the ladies are also gaining self-confidence that they did not have previously. As a result of its vision, Umoja continues to thrive. To plan for the future and to conserve the past, these ladies work tirelessly. There is an academic, sports, and music school for kids. The Samburu have also recently constructed a museum that preserves Samburu history and cultural items.

To make choices, the ladies congregate around a tree called as the “tree of speech”. There, too, the ladies speak openly about their concerns, aspirations, and accomplishments. These indomitable ladies also run advocacy programmes for the women in the areas around them. They visit nearby communities to educate females regarding their rights surrounding early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). The concept of Umoja has been copied, and there are now a few women-only communities in the region. The majority of the communities were founded by former Umoja inhabitants who desired a safe haven for females, but with distinct regulations. For example, in Nang’ida (which means happiness), males are permitted only provided they follow the laws of the ladies. This implies, for example, that duties are picked at random and not based on gender.

Umoja village survived an attempt to be sabotaged by its male counterparts who formed a men-only community adjacent Umoja. The men felt that if the female’s village did not get financial assistance, they would inevitably return groveling. So they established a competing craft company and even met with tourists to dissuade them from coming to  Umoja village. Thankfully for the ladies, the Kenyan Wildlife Services came to their rescue by connecting them to certain other successful organisations that assisted them in improving their crafts and business abilities, which led to the success of their business. The settlement quickly attracted the attention of the Ministry of Culture as well.

Barack Obama’s words during his visit to Kenya in 2015 truly sums up the struggle of these women:
“Around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women; treating women and girls as second-class citizens. Those are bad traditions. They need to change. There’s no reason that young girls should suffer genital mutilation. There’s no place in a civilised society for the early or forced marriage of children. These traditions may date back to centuries, they have no place in the 21st century”.

– Uttara

Picture Credits: Georgina Goodwin / The Observer / The Guardian

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