The Wilson Quarterly

No country for men: Umoja, an all-female village in northern Kenya

The women of Umoja come from separate Samburu villages scattered across Kenya’s Rift Valley, yet they all share one feature: they are the victims of abuse, rape, forced marriages, and fled their male-dominated communities in favor of a female utopia.

Men have dominated Kenyan society for centuries. They are the breadwinners, the rulers of their cities and villages, the voices of authority in their workplaces and homes. They are also the enforcers of a concerning cultural norm: widespread violence and brutality against women.

Until recently, most Kenyan women accepted their fates with silence, unable to fight the power of the patriarchy. Now, more women are finally striking back by striking out on their own.

The Samburu are a major African tribe with villages clustered throughout the Rift Valley. Like the majority of Kenya’s ethnic groups, they are acutely patriarchal, and have been for centuries. Women are frequently subjected to spousal abuse and rape and, once victims, they are ostracized and sometimes literally shunned or removed from their communities.

Such was the case for 14 women in 1990. For decades, British soldiers had visited Kenya to conduct military exercises. These visits would frequently culminate in the sexual assault of Kenyan women, who were powerless to stop the soldiers or receive justice in the aftermath of rape.

In 1990, soldiers at one Samburu village raped 14 women, who were subsequently shamed by their community and deemed unworthy of marriage or family. Rebecca Lolosoli, a politically active member of her tribe, attempted to help these women by educating them about their rights. For this offense, she was brutally beaten by Samburu men from her village, who had warned her against speaking out to the community. Lolosoli took her advocacy, left her husband, and fled her village to start a new life with the fourteen abandoned women.

From Broadly, a documentary on the women of Umoja.

Now, in the desert surrounding Mount Kenya, a matriarchal community thrives. Umoja, named for the Swahili word meaning “unity,” is an exclusively female village, led by Lolosoli. Here, women are leaders, homeowners, entrepreneurs, and caregivers. They govern and sustain themselves successfully. They choose their own marriages. They coexist peacefully and teach their children the importance of gender equality. Though Umoja initially started as an exclusive escape for Lolosoli and her fourteen compatriots, the community eventually opened to all survivors of sexual abuse and violence as a place to escape abuse and heal. If and when inhabitants choose to leave, they are empowered, ready to start anew with partners of their choosing.

As such, the community’s population is in constant flux. At times, the village has housed as many as 60 women (and their collective brood of 200 children). Nowadays, the population hovers around 20 women, and their families. They sustain themselves by making intricate beaded jewelry unique to their tribe, which they sell to tourists passing through the village. Umoja’s leaders also enforce a $12 entry fee at the gates of the village, and sleeping accommodations at a nearby campsite are available for a small charge.

As a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind establishment, Umoja relies on the contributions of its frequent visitors to feed its inhabitants, and sustain its growth. In the typical Samburu village, money made by a woman is given to her husband, who controls the family’s purse strings. In Umoja, women keep the money they earn from their business ventures, and learn how to financially support themselves and their families.

Umoja stands in stark contrast to the lived reality of gender for most Kenyan women. All of Kenya’s major ethnic groups have a patriarchal structure where the oldest men within a tribe control politics, arrange marriages, and elevate younger men by awarding them properties, livestock, and women. Most women are subjected to traditions that undermine their value as people, and, instead, treat them as property. By dominating the land and livestock, men control the flow of money in agriculture-based tribal economies; Kenyan women own just 3 percent of the country’s land, according to a 2013 study by the Nature Conservancy. Per Samburu customs, women are generally not allowed to own land or inherit it — even as the women themselves are inheritable property.

Umoja is a launching pad for societal change, eschewing Kenya’s most harmful cultural norms.

Umoja is a launching pad for societal change, eschewing and outright reversing Kenya’s more harmful cultural norms. Among the Samburu, female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely viewed as a rite of passage into womanhood for preteen girls; Lolosoli and her cofounders stress the dangers behind this tradition to young girls, encouraging them to denounce this antiquated and misogynist tradition. Forced marriages are a prominent part of Samburu culture as well, in which young girls — often no older than 13 — are betrothed to men who are decades their senior, with goats and cows given in exchange. By contrast, Lolosoli encourages women to find their own husbands and create families built by love rather than dowry trade-offs.

In 2011, Umoja’s success inspired the creation of Unity, a sister village. Half of the women living in Umoja left to establish Unity, in part due to political and ideological differences they had with Lolosoli. Despite those personal incompatibilities, Unity carries forward its predecessor’s tradition of spreading education to women and their children in the hopes that future generations of Samburu will acknowledge and support gender equality. Lolosoli has brought a small-scale enlightenment to the Samburu community, and her message has spread throughout the broader Rift Valley.

Across Kenya, though, the fight for gender equality is still very much in its infancy. Many men continue to push back against the idea of equality between men and women, and Umoja and Unity routinely receive violent threats from men in neighboring tribes. Most of these threats come from abandoned husbands, intent on forcing their wives back into subservience. Others target Lolosoli herself, who as the matriarch of the community, is no stranger to death threats.

For much of Kenya, the patriarchal dynamic still prevails. Men are the heads of families, and women are merely the “necks”—their sole roles being to support the heads.

In Umoja, women are the heads of households, the supportive necks of their community, and the bodies laboring to sustain the village. In Umoja, women are everything.

* * *

Further Reading:

“The Land of No Men: Inside Kenya's Women-Only Village,” Broadly, September 8, 2015

“Kenya’s National Gender Context and its Implications for Conservation: A Gender Analysis,” The National Conservancy Central Science, July 2013.

Read Next

The mystery behind Japan’s high suicide rates among kids