The women of Umoja Village: Some heck of a bunch!

They are women all over the place. Some fetching water, some cooking, some making beads, some fixing leaking roofs and some singing and dancing to keep everybody going.

Scattered among the crowd of women are children running around doing what children do.

But where are the men? Off to the farms or to war? No. There are no men. Not one man. Umoja which means unity in Swahili is a special village for women run by women who are tired of men and kicked them out of their lives.

How it all started.

Sometime in 1990, 15 women in Samburu county in northern Kenya were raped by some British soldiers from a base nearby. Instead of sympathy from the community, the women were stigmatized as their husbands accused them of bringing dishonour to their families.

Rebecca Lolosoli, founder of Umoji.

Out of shame and frustration, the 15 women lead by one Rebecca Lolosoli left their homes and families and went on self-exile to form the Umoja community. Rebecca is said to have come up with the idea of a women’s only community while in a hospital recovering from a beating by men who felt she was teaching women about their rights.

But the rape incident involving those 15 women was just the last straw that drove the women to the edge. The men of Samburu are reported to often abuse their women and wives both physically and sexually.

Umoja became a sanctuary.

Soon, Umoja became a land of refuge to Samburu girls and women fleeing from early marriage, rape, female genital mutilation, wife inheritance, spousal abuse and stigmatism. Even women who are not residents of Umoja go there to take lessons on women’s rights.

A commune of some sort.

Umoja is run more or less like a self-sustaining commune. The women make various sorts of traditional jewelleries. They also provide a campsite for tourists visiting the nearby National Reserve as well as take donations from well-wishers online. The revenue from these sources are put into a pool supervised by the village matriarch, Rebecca, who then allocates food and cash to each family according to needs. Some of the funds are also set aside for the free education of all the children in the community.

An Umoja woman making beads for sale.

No place or role for men.

Men have neither a place nor role in Umoja. In fact, they are persona non grata. They are banned from coming within the boundaries of the community. Men who want to violate the restriction for whatever reasons, including husbands looking for their runaway wives, are either immediately kicked out or become guests of the local police who are promptly called in to issue warnings or make arrests.

How come there are children in Umoja?

Some of the children are brought in by fleeing women. But there are some that are conceived and born there. But how, when there are no men in the community? How a woman gets pregnant and by whom is each woman’s private business as long as no man is brought openly or secretly into the community.If there are male children in Umoja, would they not grow to become men in the community?

That is reasonable to expect. But that is not the case. Once a male child turns 18, he is kicked out of the community to go and find a place out there for his adult life. How he does that is the private business of his mother and the biological father who lives outside the community.

A young woman asked about the presence of so many children, laughed and said,
Ah, we still like men. They are not allowed here, but we want babies and women have to have children, even if they are unmarried.”

Umoja women celebrating their freedom from abusive men.

Women’s day every day?

So, while women around the world celebrate “women’s day” on March 8 every year, the women of Umoja claim they celebrate their own “women’s day” ever day of their lives free from the fear of men’s violence and discrimination.
Said Judia, a 19-year-old who fled to Umoja at 13 to avoid early marriage,
“every day I wake up and smile to myself because I am surrounded by help and support.”

Another resident, Sieta said,

“Outside women are being ruled by men so they can’t get any change. The women in Umoja have freedom.”

But is the Umoja model a universal solution to man’s domination and abuse of women?

Rebecca, the woman who came up with the idea of Umoja is hailed around the world as a champion of women’s rights. That may be the case. But the long-term effect of this experiment is yet to be fully studied and measured.

For instance, what becomes of so many children who are born outside wedlock and male children who are disconnected from their mothers at 18 and may not know who their fathers are?

Are the women of Umoja as free as they think? Or are they solving one problem and creating another? Only time will tell.

(Picture credits: CBS, The Guardian UK, CNN).