In Kenya lies a village much like any other of the Sambaru people: farm animals roam working huts, woven jewelry serves trade goods and a mean of income, and women take care of the children, both part of the village and not.
Surrounding the traditionally nomadic, deeply patriarchal Samburu tribe, Umoja was founded in 1990, according to The Guardian, after 15 escaped female refugees of “violence, rape, female genital mutilation and child marriage,” started the community.
The village leader, Rebecca Lolosoli, was beat so bad by the men in her village, she spent time in the hospital recovering. At the time, her husband didn’t defend her or show any signs of supporting her activism for women’s rights. Rebecca left him soon thereafter, finding safety in Umoja and eventually becoming the village matriarch.
When the town was first heard of by the neighboring tribes, death threats were eminent. Men of other tribes were beating women who were selling jewelry to keep the village income sustainable. Since Umoja has become a safety net for female runaways, women with freedom were seen as a threat. Men feared the idea that women would have so much freedom, both financially and culturally.
The current town population is 47 women, but Umoja holds home to over 200 children. School also exists in Umoja, and is even open to children from other villages to learn. Though men are not allowed in, women still have the ability to maintain relationships with them in order to have children. Though Muslim tradition is disapproving of children outside of marriage, these women look past the typical customs of their culture, some even abandoning them completely.
The village has several accounts of villagers who have been raped by one or more British soldiers, causing the women to be “unclean” to their tribes, as well as in the eyes of Islam. These women are not able to get married. Sammy Kania, a woman of the Umoja community, tells The Guardian,
“Once a woman is raped, they are not clean any more in Islam and Qur’an culture. It is not fair, because it happens by accident. The husband could have taken them for an HIV test so that they can continue with life, take care for their children and feed them.”
The village is set on keeping a tradition the Samburu has not: Provide its women with the necessary education and knowledge they’ll never receive outside their hidden culture. Rather than subjecting women to household chores and forced, traditional marriages, this society has women in a position where they are able to govern themselves.
Inspired by the success that Umoja has brought upon, there have been others like it. In Broadly‘s exploration, we see the “trickle down” villages that have followed in the footsteps of the all-female community. In the neighboring Nachami village, men are allowed to live among the women, so long as they abide and respect the rules the female leaders have set.
Here, men don’t take on more than one wife and work as equals with their wives. This is considered forward thinking for the Samburu people.
The freedom Umoja belongs to a new wave of thinking and remains a crucial link to the change that is slowly but surely appearing throughout the world. The Umoja village gives women everywhere hope that such a peaceful, successful haven was started and run by women alone, is able to continue standing strong.
Rebecca’s activism has carried on for decades now, growing more powerful with every passing year. This matriarch has given women everywhere a well-deserved pride and hope. Unwavering, Rebecca and the village women’s refusal to back down has made all the difference in their everyday lives and will continue to support their community in becoming the best it can be.
The future is truly female.