Rebeca Lolosoli was lying down on bed after being beaten up by men for speaking to other women of her village about female rights. In that exact moment, she got the idea of Umoja, the only place in the world with no men. 27 years later, that daydream is now a safe haven for 47 women and 200 children escaping from the horrible reality happening in Kenya, where women live under a patriarchal system in which they most go under abusive traditions and cultural norms of the Samburu people such as arranged marriage, child marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and rape.
The attacks not only come from their own people, but also from outsiders. In the past few years, there has been an increase of rape cases perpetrated by British soldiers. These attacks take place when women go out of their villages for water or wood. Most of them are too scared to even talk about the attack since those who do talk about it end up being hurt by their own husbands and ignored by their families. This is a very common reason of why women decide to run away and find the source of the gossips they’ve heard. That mythical land where they can finally feel safe.
Inside Umoja women build everything with their own hands, they collect water and wood, they take care of the animals, they have created an entire system that has finally given them the thing they longed the most: freedom.
Women inside the village have economic independence, as well as their own homes for them and their children. Their main income comes from the jewelry they sell to tourists, which are quite common in the area. Once they had enough money they decided to open a school not only for their own children but also for children living in other villages.
The residents of Umoja say the economic independence they have now is what bothers men outside the village the most. They have even attempted several attacks in the past and the women from Umoja keep each other safe by rotating shifts all night and day in case there’s another attempt.
Most of the women in the village say they would never live near a man again, and those girls who have been raised in Umoja don’t even consider the possibility of ever getting married. But for them that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be mothers, most girls have boyfriends from other villages and decide to have children they can raise on their own with complete freedom. Young boys are welcome in Umoja as long as they know and respect the rules.
Umoja, which means 'unity' in Swahili, is built with the cooperation of all the women in the village. They depend on one another to keep each other safe. Other villages have been born from the original idea. One of them is Nachami, where men are allowed to live in but women are the ones who govern and have the last word. Other examples are the villages of Suba and Hang’ida, which follow a similar system.
‘When they call us “women” is 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.’
Rebecca’s words and story have inspired the women around her and at the age of 53 she is now an advocate for women rights. Umoja Village is more than a place where women feel safe, it’s a movement that has started a revolution that threatens a strict patriarchy that has been in Kenya for more than 500 years. By becoming independent, women are sending a clear message: we are done. They are taking their freedom and using it as a weapon against the abuses they’ve suffered. They are not going to keep apologizing for being women. They want this tradition of hatred to stop and a land of equality to born. Umoja Village is just the first brave step towards it.
If you want to learn more about Umoja Village watch this amazing documentary by Broadly. (article originally published in Affinity by Elba Nara)