Umoja women’s village! The city with only females. In north-central Kenya, there is a village made up only of women, Umoja. Founded in 1990, it is entirely managed and supported by the women who live there with their children, women who have fled from violence and sexist culture.
What can arise from colonization, female genital mutilation and a traditionalist culture that discriminates against women? Nobody would answer; a happy place! But this is what happened in Kenya, where these three different yet equally destructive factors gave birth to Umoja, a village made up of women only.
Umoja is located in north-central Kenya, in the Samburu region, and is defined as a “matriarchal” village. It was founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli and other Kenyan women to welcome all those who decided to escape the violence – either from their husbands or from English soldiers or simply from the patriarchal society of the Samburu – and live another life. In fact, only women – and children who were born and raised there – can live in Umoja. Men are not allowed, but if they accept the rules of this new society, they can spend time in the village.
Therefore, the village was born first of all as a refuge from violence and welcomed 15 women in search of shelter. Her husband and other men attacked Rebecca Lolosoli herself just for talking to the other women in her village about the rights they have to fight for. One of the many pieces of violence that, however, this time sends her to the hospital and is decisive in making her take a new path. So also, the other women who are with her have been beaten, attacked, raped.
Since 1990 the village has grown, it is now over thirty years old and has over 70 women and 250 children. Women, girls and children continue to flee and go to Umoja, where they usually stay for long years, if not forever.
The hostility of men – who say they are opposed to such an experience because “men must necessarily control women” – could not stop the experimentation of this new female society.
Still, many women come to Umoja today. In fact, female genital mutilation and early marriage are the order of the day in the Samburu culture.
In the first case, it is a practice carried out for years and never opposed: among the Samburu, a woman who has not undergone mutilation cannot be married, and it is natural to practice FGM on female daughters.
Furthermore, early marriages are also very common: about 23% of girls in Kenya marry before the age of 18, a percentage that rises to 29% in the countryside. Perceived as a burden by their respective families, they are almost immediately “given” into marriage and forced to have children when they are still very young, with all the emotional damage that this entails.
A strongly male-dominated and patriarchal culture supports all this. Samburu men, in fact, believe that women cannot manage themselves, but that they must necessarily be guided and controlled; that women without men cannot provide for their safety; that women are in all respects the property (perhaps silent) of men.
What Samburu men do not realize, however, is that they themselves pose a danger to their women and that these women themselves are fleeing.
The women of Umoja have proved the opposite. Not only have they escaped from the violence, in a sense healing from the evil they had suffered, but they have also been able to build a lasting community where it is possible to live together, among women who govern themselves.
Every woman is equal to the other, there is no political leader, but only a spokesperson (embodied in the figure of Rebecca Lolosoli). Decisions are made all together around the “word tree”, and each woman donates 10% of what she earns for the community. They live with little, selling pearl necklaces and traditional artefacts but still managing to run an entire community by supporting each other.
Over time, these women have also been able to build a school and a nursery, which welcome children from Umoja and those from neighbouring villages and carry out an important educational task.
All the women who are welcomed into the village learn that the violence suffered is the result of a culture, which, however, can be changed, eradicated, starting from there, from their experience. An experience that speaks of women, first of all, freedom. Free to choose.
Although men are not allowed, in fact, this does not mean that the women of the village repudiate the male gender in its entirety, on the contrary. The women of Umoja decide to have relationships and establish relationships with the men of the neighbouring villages.
Sometimes they also have children, who often grow up with them in the village and therefore outside marriage. A condition that in many other cities in the area would have been unacceptable.
Some men frequent the village and accept its rules: they have learned that the man-woman relationship must grow on an equal footing and without violence.
There is, therefore, the possibility of change, not only for women but also for men. A very slow change, but that starts from the bottom and from the experience of the protagonists of this story. A change that a few steps at a time is working and is positively contagious.
But the Samburu women did not give up and managed to retake possession of their land, making ethical tourism the driving force of their economy and survival. In fact, in the space of ten years, they managed to give new stability to the village, building the necessary infrastructures to welcome travellers.
There is a campsite with lodges and a tent area, equipped with water and basic services, such as a restaurant area. There is a cultural centre and a small museum with a good offer of cultural activities ranging from demonstrations of traditional techniques and rituals (dancing, lighting the fire), to the sale of artefacts (Umoja jewellery) or to the organization of tours in the nearby reserve by Kalama. All this, over the years, has allowed the village to rebuild itself with solidity and to be able to also have the services necessary for its own inhabitants, like a small elementary school.
So, between one resort and another, a beach and a safari, treat yourself to two days in the heart of Kenya. The vitality of these women, their smiles, the will to live, despite everything, will regenerate your souls much more than the roar of a lion or the colours of the coral reef.
It is recommended to book the visit and stay. Prices and taxes have average values. The services available are essential but well functioning, and every traveller is truly welcomed and pampered like a child, on the other hand, it is a matriarchal reality.
Men are allowed to visit the village, but they are not allowed to live or sleep there, apart from travellers and those who were born and raised in Umoja.
As the presence of Noiva do Cordeiro, popularly known for its female dominance, exist in Basil, so do we have Umoja with its female dominance in Kenya, of both with the same purpose.