Domestic violence is usually something that remains hidden in Kenya. Behind the closed doors of huts. Spoken about in hushed tones. Shame in the air like wood smoke.
But one Samburu woman decided that she wasn’t going to hide anymore.
Rebecca Lolosoli felt compelled to speak up about women’s rights and was beaten by men in her village. Her husband, who bought her for a herd of cows, failed to stand up for her. Lying in the hospital recovering from her wounds, she decided that enough was enough.
She left her husband and began to build a manyatta, or village, where men are not welcome. In fact, they are banned. One by one, other women followed.
The village is called Umoja, meaning ‘unity’ in Swahili, and is a refuge for survivors of rape and sexual violence. For nearly 30 years, it has been a sanctuary for women forced out by their husbands, and young girls escaping female genital mutilation and forced marriages. Rebecca said of her own experience:
I wouldn’t wish any Maasai girl to go through what I went through.
Women fleeing domestic abuse have found a safe haven in Umoja, where they can raise their children, and be part of a sisterhood.
We Rule Our Own Village
It hasn’t been an easy road.
The Samburu culture, closely related to the Maasai, is a deeply patriarchal society where men rule with complete authority.
I lived in the Masai Mara in Kenya for a year in a safari camp. Many of the staff, both men and women, were from the surrounding villages.
I bore witness to how hard the women work; building huts by hand, cooking meals, taking care of the children, and the back-breaking chore of fetching clean water and collecting firewood. Women are forbidden to own land or livestock, and are often pulled out of school to be married at a tender age.
Life in Samburu is much the same, one of mud huts and animal herding, surrounded by acacia-dotted grasslands. Women are seen as property, and men can have multiple wives.The idea of a women-only village was unheard of.
As a Samburu woman you have no rights. If the husband wants to kill you, he has a right to kill you anytime, because you are like property, and in the Samburu culture, have you ever heard of a woman village? So they said, “We have to destroy this village.” And we said, “We are not going to move.” Let them kill us and make a story of killing all the women in this village.
Over the years, men have regularly attacked Umoja. At one point, Rebecca’s former husband forced his way into the village and threatened her life, but through all of this, she remains undeterred.
We don’t let them come and rule us again. We rule our village.
Beading a Future Together
The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists, surviving in the harsh landscape by herding goats and cattle.
Life is frugal at Umoja, the women scraping by on a diet of ugali (maize meal), milk, and meat. But there is singing. And dancing. And beadmaking.
Beading has been a part of the Samburu tradition for generations, passed down from grandmother to mother, from mother to child. The women make intricate multi-coloured beaded jewellery by hand, to adorn themselves, and to sell to tourists.
We decided to do a small business selling our jewellery on the road. When tourists are passing, we welcome them, and they buy our things when we are here. When we started selling, we found the men beat the women and take away the money.
Some men set up a rival village nearby and tried to dissuade visitors from buying anything from Umoja. But every day the women sat on mats creating beautiful jewellry. Every day they displayed their handicrafts. And every day the tourists kept coming.
So every morning we have to come and display our things. This is what we depend on. This is our living.
The women asked themselves, “What can we do with this money?” So they started a school. They not only provide food, education and shelter for the village, but also share their hard-earned income with the husbands and families they fled. For tourists, they run a Samburu cultural center and a camping site on the edge of the Samburu National Reserve.
A Strong Sisterhood
Umoja grows as more women join the village. Beads are sold to tourists. The school fills up with children.
This is a village built on sisterhood, one of support, freedom and connection, of holding each other up, with no tolerance for fear and violence.
Men are allowed to visit the village but not to stay the night, unless they were raised there. It is a sanctuary for girls who refused to be circumcised or forced into marriage with an older man, and for women who were beaten by their husbands or raped and made to feel it was their fault. The village also raises orphans, abandoned children and children with HIV.
When they call us women, it’s like a dirty name. We walk and we talk and we laugh. Let us show them that we are happy. And we have to be proud we are women.
In traditional Samburu culture, women’s voices are silenced and men have all of the power. The women of Umoja gather under the shade of the ‘tree of speech’ to discuss important matters, and although Rebecca is the matriarch, each woman is equal to the other.
Children run around playing on the sun-baked earth, and the sound of women singing rises above the huts.
It is not without its hardships. But it is all theirs; a place to call their own.
Fighting for Women’s Rights
Umoja is an inspiration for women’s rights everywhere.
The women have built their own freedom from the ground up. They own the land that the village stands on. They run their own lives.
Workshops for Samburu women, on child marriage and the dangers of genital mutilation, are held in the schoolhouse. Women in Kenya are becoming more aware of their rights, and are standing together.
A success story for the power of sisterhood, Umoja has inspired other women-only villages in Kenya. It was created against all odds, in a place where patriarchy ruled. What the women want is to live in a place where there is no need for men to be banned, where women are equals, and become leaders, just like Rebecca.
This is what they want:
The rights we want:
We want to choose our husband,
We want to own the land,
We want to go to school,
We don’t want to be cut anymore,
We want also to make decisions,
We want respect in politics,
To be leaders,
We want to be equal. – Rebecca Lolosoli
Women from ALL over the world are gathering in circles on March 8th for International Women’s Day. You can join the event here.
Photographs taken by Georgina Goodwin at Umoja Village, Kenya.