Umoja: The African Village Where Men Are Banned
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In one Kenyan town, there’s no founding father, but there’s a founding mother:
Rebecca Lolosoli was born into the Samburu tribe, based about six hours away from Nairobi. She attended primary school as a girl. She even starting a course at a Catholic nursing school before having to drop out due to lack of payment. She was married at 18 to a decent man who gave her parents 17 cows as a dowry.
She was undeterred in her convictions:
He wasn’t a bad husband, she later said, but he wasn’t thrilled with her independent and entrepreneurial spirit. She started selling items in the village to try to earn some extra money and four men there didn’t like it.
They beat her and took her money. Her husband didn’t do anything. She was undeterred. She began speaking out about women having the right to safety and protection and to not be raped.
That really angered the men – the next time her husband was out of town, she was severely beaten, so badly she had to be hospitalized.
When he learned that she’d been beaten, he said nothing:
Still, that was not enough to stop her from what she felt was important work. Her parents reminded her that she needed to go home to her husband after she was released from the hospital.When he learned that she’d been beaten, he said nothing.
“The problem is Samburu women have no rights – no right to own livestock or land, to go to school, even to choose a husband,” she later said.
“If a Samburu man kills his wife, no one cares – he paid the dowry, so he owns her.”
Many women said they’d been raped by British soldiers:
So Lolosoli did something radical: she left. Not only did Lolosoli leave, she started her own village. The rape of woman is a common occurrence in that part of Kenya.
Many women said they’d been raped by British soldiers who used to train and camp nearby, dressing in green to blend in with the trees and making a game of attacking women as they gathered firewood for their families.
Fearing their husbands’ anger and feeling ashamed, the women never spoke up about it, instead whispering their stories amongst themselves.
She was more than fed up:
If a husband or relative found out a woman had been raped, she could be kicked out of the village with their children. Some women decided to try and support themselves, brewing changaa, a kind of liquor akin to moonshine, but that’s not exactly legal.
Some were jailed for this, leaving their children without anyone to care for them. All things considered, Lolosoli, who first started speaking out in a village council about the rights of women and how they’d been treated, was done. She was more than fed up.
When she left, a few other women followed her. They established a village, called Umoja – “Unity” in Swahili – in 1990 and built a few huts out of mud and dung.
No men allowed:
And they had one overarching rule: No men allowed.
There’s at least one man who comes to the village daily to tend to the animals that live there. But that’s it – he cannot live there and must obey the women who live in and govern the village. Umoja was created in a small plot of unwanted and untended stretch of grasslands.
Astonishingly, the country’s then-Ministry of Culture, Heritage and Social Services helped them get settled. It’s an arid-to-semi-arid climate there, meaning cattle are too demanding and take up too many precious resources, so while there might be the occasional cow, the women raise mostly chickens and goats to feed themselves.
It wasn’t just rape victims who made their way to the village where men are prohibited: some were taking their children away so their daughters wouldn’t be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a barbaric and common practice in which parts of their outer reproductive organs are cut off with stones or knives.
These remarkable women also have created a school:
Lolosoli herself nearly died from FGM when she was 12, suffering from complications after the gruesome procedure.These remarkable women also have created a school within the village, both for their children and for those who live nearby and have nowhere else to get an education.
The long shadow of colonialism still hangs in the air, however: In 2003, a British law firm, working nearby with victims of bombs left behind by those British soldiers, started collecting stories from the Umoja women of their rapes and attacks by the same soldiers.
They provided, in detail, accounts of being attacked while gathering water and firewood. The women told stories of abuse dating back more than three decades. Horrifying, to be sure, but imagine how wonderful it must have been for those women to tell their stories and know they were heard.
Nevertheless, they persisted:
Unfortunately, it was not enough. One of the firm’s managing partners provided all these stories and their cases to the Royal Military Police, which promptly decided all the accounts were forged.
Later, when the firm asked for the reports to be returned for their records, they were notified that all documentation had mysteriously gone missing. Imagine that.
Still, the women carry on.
Within a few years of establishing the village, the women saved up the 200,000 shillings (about $2,700 USD) needed to buy a small campground at the edge of their village. It’s mostly used by tourists going on safari nearby, but it provides money to the village.
Beading jewelry is a time-honored tradition among Samburu women:
The tourists help in another way as well. Many of them, intrigued by the infamous place they’re staying near, will come into Umoja and purchase some of the beaded jewelry the women make. Beading jewelry is a time-honored tradition among Samburu women.
They make elaborate necklaces and other adornments all by hand. The pieces are all brightly coloured and are traditional in their design and material, but they’ve become loved by tourists looking to bring a little bit of their trip home.
The beads, in their old village, sometimes were given for more sinister reasons. The first necklace a girl received in their old village was given to her by her father in a “beading” ceremony.
There’s no contraception in the village either:
He then selects a warrior, a man usually somewhat older than the young girl, and they enter into a “temporary marriage.” While it is technically forbidden for pregnancies to occur during this time, the men hold all the power and usually force the girl, no matter how old she is, to have sex with him.
There’s no contraception in the village either. If the girl becomes pregnant, other women in the village perform an abortion, regardless of whether that’s what she wants.
Forget that these girls might be as young as 11 or 12. If a girl, even as a teenager, gives birth, it can do serious harm to her body and can lead to her death if she’s not given proper medical attention.
That says nothing about her ability to parent, but if she’s just a child herself, what kind of life will she and her child have? The village is not perfect, nor is it embraced by all.
To show up the women, a group of men decided to launch their own, men-only village nearby, presumably to keep an eye on the women and see what they were up to. Like the women, the men built a community center and tried to lure tourists into their village.
To put it nicely, it didn’t work. It got worse when Lolosoli was invited to speak at the United Nations about her village and the women of Umoja.
“They just said, frankly, that they wanted to kill me.”
The speaking engagement was part of a larger event on gender empowerment and women’s rights around the world.
“That’s when the very ugly jealous behaviors started,” Lolosoli told the Washington Post at the time. “They just said, frankly, that they wanted to kill me.” The men were irritated that the women were doing so well without them and were so successful on their own.
Imagine the surprise when she petitioned for a divorce. Imagine again the shock and surprise when her petition was granted.
The chief of the short-lived male village, a man named Sebastian Lesinik, said that women are the neck that should support the head of village and family life – the men.
“A man cannot take, let’s call it advice, from the neck,” he told the Post. A short time later, he begrudgingly admitted that maybe they should.
Sisters really doing it for themselves:
In Umoja, Lolosoli and the others are having a greater reach even than making the men look foolish. Other women-only villages have sprouted up across African and into India, showing that sisters really can do it for themselves.
More importantly, Kenya’s government has at least considered new legislation that would allow women the right to refuse marriage, to fight sexual harassment and assault in the workplace (for those in bigger metropolitan areas where this is an option), to reject FGM and to prosecute men who rape them.
In 2011, child marriage was outlawed, a huge victory. Some communities still allow it to happen, and some girls are married off to men up to 40 years their senior – they’re occasionally just the newest wife among a group of them.
Historically, divorce has not existed in Kenya:
In December 2017, more than 300 elders from the Sumburu Central Sub-Community even went a step further, pledging to ban FGM after they learned more about the dangers it caused.
Lolosoli was still married to her husband, the one who didn’t defend her or act empathetically when she was beaten, after leaving to start Umoja. Historically, divorce has not existed in Kenya, or at least within the Samburu village.
The women of Umoja are faced with threats:
One account of the incident has her ex-husband bursting into tears as the divorce was granted, shouting, “I will get hold of you again.”
Still, she – and they – persist.In addition to the men who started a spying village nearby, the women of Umoja are faced with threats from men and more traditional women alike. Going against a centuries-old society and its traditions is seen as a challenge, as offensive and as disrespectful.
“When women take on men’s responsibilities in our culture like the way these women are doing, they become outcasts,” Aleper Lomukunyu, a male resident of a village one kilometer away from Umoja told a reporter. “Any woman who goes against our culture becomes a traitor of the community.”
Women are still harassed when they leave the village:
They face other challenges too – an outbreak of malaria killed three women. Their livestock has been threaten, stolen and killed by bandits and cattle rustlers. Women are still harassed when they leave the village.
At one time, men from the other village beat women near the Umoja camp, to show that they were in danger and to try and insinuate that the village was corrupt. Still, they do not leave, they do not waiver, they do not give up.
The village is encircled by a row of thorns to show the women are serious about protecting each other. If a woman has faced explicit threats, other villagers will take turns keeping watch over her hut as she sleeps. If an angry husband comes to try and “reclaim” his wife, they keep her safe.
There are children running around the village:
The women of Umoja share their food communally, making a meal to eat together when the children get a break from school. And there are children running around the village.
When asked about the nearly 200 children in the village, ( which is three or four times more than the 50 to 70 women who live there), one resident kind of laughed and said that just because they don’t want to live with men, it doesn’t mean they don’t still LIKE men.
Having children is very important to their society, despite the religious repercussions of having children without being married. Being a mother and raising children is even more important. Said one woman, “without children, we are nothing.”
This, of course, is great fun to the men of nearby villages. They point to the children as evidence that the women of Umoja can’t do everything by themselves.
Women-free zones exist worldwide:
To be fair, there are several places around the world where women are absolutely prohibited. For example, Mount Athos, in Greece, is home to more than 2,000 Eastern Orthodox monks.
Male visitors are allowed if they apply for, and receive, special permission, but it’s a women-free zone.The same is true of Mount Omine in Japan, a mountain sacred to the Shinto religion. Women under the age of 10 and over the age of 50 can set foot inside the Lord Ayyappa Temple in India, a Hindu shrine. But why those ages and not in the middle? Menstruation.
The Haji Ali Dargah in India, a mosque and tomb, prohibits women because being close to them while in the presence of the gravesite of a Muslim saint is considered a grievous sin.
In Iran, women cannot attend football matches:
India’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid, along with the Jain Temple, Patbausi Satra and Sree Padmanabhaswamy, all in India, keep women outside.
And just forget altogether going into a cemetery in Saudi Arabia if you carry two X chromosomes (to say nothing of other things forbidden to Saudi women). And in Iran, women cannot attend football matches in stadiums with men – some who tried have been jailed.
But before you think this is an Eastern-world issue, think again: Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland might as well have a sign on the front calling it the “He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.” There’s even a water park in Germany where women can’t use a big, fast slide – out of concern for the “nature of the female anatomy,” the park says.
Lolosoli continues to be a strong advocate for women worldwide:
Lolosoli continues to be a strong advocate for women worldwide. In 2010, she received the Vital Voices Fern Holland Global Leadership Award. She’s visited the UN a few times to speak on behalf of her village, even meeting with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Women in the World Summit in 2011, in addition to Condoleezza Rice and Madeline Albright.
She has served as the chairperson for the nearby chapter of the Manedeleo ya Wanawake Organization, an empowerment group for women, for 10 years.
The women of Umoja are happy, confident, self-sufficient and safe. They left abusive husbands, beatings, shame from being raped, families that cast them out for being assaulted because they were born female and daring to speak up for themselves.
Umoja is a shining example of what women can do:
They sell their beaded goods and make their own money, something that would’ve been impossible in their old villages. They raise their children – who are clothed, fed, educated and happy – without having to listen to men who know nothing about children. They’re a shining example of what women can do when they come together and work, unified, for a common goal.
“We didn’t build the village as a women’s village without men; we were just given this name by the men here,” Lolosoli told a reporter. “It’s like a dirty word to them.”
Umoja will continue to thrive:
Umoja women have trained others to support and protect themselves, joining with international organizations to help educate themselves and others in ways they can be self-sufficient.
They educate women about their rights, their ability to stand up for themselves and the dangers of unprotected sex and FMG. They support their sisters in other villages nearby who have chosen to cast the men out, or keep them away.
And so long as women are in danger of their husbands and looking for a safe place to live, Umoja will continue to thrive.
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