Umoja village is quite an unusual place. It is inhabited only by women, their children and livestock. No men are allowed there. Most of the women that dwell in Umoja, Kenya, are the victims of rape and sexual abuse.
Umoja is a village in the grasslands of Samburu, in northern Kenya. It is surrounded by a fence of thorns. There are goats and chickens, beautiful children and women who make jewellery to sell to tourists. Their fingers work quickly as they talk and laugh with each other. It is a typical Samburu village, except for one thing: no men live there.
At Umoja they wear traditional Samburu dress of patterned skirts, brightly coloured shirts and a kanga (a colourful wrap) tied on their shoulders. Their necklaces are made of strings of vividly coloured beads from stunning circular patterns around their necks. The colourful clothing contrasts with the dry air and terrain, and the harsh sun that picks out the dust that fills the air.
The village was founded in 1990 by a group of 15 women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. Umoja’s population has now expanded to include any woman escaping child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu.
Rebecca Lolosoli is the village matriarch and a founder of Umoja. She was in hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men when she came up with the idea of a women-only community. The beating was an attempt to teach her a lesson for daring to speak to women in her village about their rights.
Lotukoi says: “It’s funny because you don’t see men around here but you see small children, which means women go get men outside.” Photo: The Observer
The Samburu are closely related to the Maasai tribe, and they speak a similar language. They usually live in groups of five to 10 families and are semi-nomadic pastoralists. Their culture is deeply patriarchal. At village meetings men sit in an inner circle to discuss important village issues, while the women sit on the outside, only occasionally allowed to express an opinion.
Umoja’s first members all came from the isolated Samburu villages dotted across the Rift 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.
Statistics show that there are currently 47 women and 200 children in Umoja. Although the inhabitants live extremely frugally, these enterprising women and girls earn a regular income that provides food, clothing and shelter for all.
A kilometre away by the river, village leaders run a campsite, where groups of safari tourists stay. Many of these tourists, and others passing through nearby nature reserves, also visit Umoja. The women charge a modest entrance fee and hope that, once in the village, the visitors will buy jewellery made by the women in the craft centre.
One of the unique features of the Umoja community is that some of the more experienced residents train and educate women and girls from surrounding Samburu villages on issues such as early marriages and FGM.
Ornate beaded jewellery is an important accoutrement of Samburu culture. Girls get their first necklaces from their father in a ceremony known as “beading”. The father chooses an older “warrior” male with which the daughter will enter into a temporary marriage at this time.
Umoja women make jewellery to sell to tourists. Photo: The Observer